Pushcart XLI: Lisa Taddeo, “Forty-Two” from New England Review #36.1

Jennie Jieun Lee:  Bust

Jennie Jieun Lee: Bust

Joan had to look beautiful.
Tonight there was a wedding in goddamned Brooklyn, farm-to-table animals talking about steel cut oatmeal as though they invented the steel that cut it. In New York the things you hate are the things you do.
She worked out at least two hours a day. On Mondays and Tuesdays, which are the kindest days for older single women, she worked out as many as four. At six in the morning she ran to her barre class in leg warmers and black Lululemons size four. The class was a bunch of women squatting on a powder blue rug. You know the type, until you become one.
Complete story available online at NER

A study in interiority: one of those stories where nothing happens, but people think a lot. The author uses the thoughts, fears, attitudes to build a kind of relational structure between the vertices of their separate points of view. The head-hopping from Joan to Matt to Molly is done with flair: Joan’s thinking about Matt and then we’re in Matt’s head, that kind of tag-you’re-it technique. Cleverness and poignancy abound throughout the story.

Yet I found it hard to feel any kind of connection to any of the characters, and find I have little interest in what’s in these people’s heads. Matt wants to get laid. The women want to get loved via getting laid. I’m so glad I don’t live in New York. I’m so glad I’m beyond the age for this sort of thing – though I suppose Joan will still be at it when she’s collecting Social Security. I wish it made her happy, but it seems to make her miserable.

I think this is one of those stories where the fact that you have no idea who a person is when you finish reading it is the point. Twelve pages about Joan – a few were about Matt and Molly, but mostly Joan – and all I know about her is that at 42, she’s trying to be good enough for younger men. “Not animalistically young like twenty-two” as she puts it, more like in the ballpark of thirty. But older women don’t get to have younger men, as a rule, and she spends her time and energy railing against that, and trying to make it happen anyway.

I like the way the three characters show different phases of Joan’s mindset: Matt, who knows he the object and seems a bit bemused but is perfectly happy to take advantage of it since he’s in control; and Molly, who has won the brass ring and doesn’t have to worry about finding a man for a while. At least until, when she reaches 42, she becomes the starter wife to some current twelve-year-old who will be twenty-four just in time for Matt’s midlife crisis.

Every story takes you somewhere, even when you’re looking at 27 and 42 in the rearview mirror from far away. Here’s where this one takes me: I wonder what Joan would be without her obsession. I wonder what’s hiding in there. I also wonder what would happen if she and Molly exchanged their points of view. Would it change their outlook at all? I know I wish I’d known then what I know now. But I feel that way about 55, about 50, about 45, and, if I live long enough, I’ll probably feel that way about 62. Time is change.

2 responses to “Pushcart XLI: Lisa Taddeo, “Forty-Two” from New England Review #36.1

  1. I find everything about your commentary humorous, but not in a way where I’m mocking you for it. It’s just that demographically, you should like this story more than me, but you don’t seem to care for it much and I thought it was dynamite. I even wanted to hate it. I hated Sex and the City, which this story even gives a little nudge to, so this New York City entitled forty-something woman seemed like she was going to drive me over the edge.

    Only she didn’t. It’s not just the uber-smart interior monologues (“She felt like she had eighteen clitorises and none of them could drive”). It’s that at the end, Joan isn’t faux-heroine of her own destiny like all four terrible women from Sex and the City. She’s pitiable.

    When I want to hate a story and it overcomes my desire to hate it, then I enjoy it more than a story that I naturally want to like.

    Where is Molly at the end? She’s just realized that Jack (not Matt, BTW) isn’t a caring person. Is she about to leave him at the “altar”? To go through with it anyway, because it’s time to do it? What does “It’s time to do this” mean? I find myself hoping that she’s learned the meaning of 42 years in a way that eluded Joan.

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