On its surface, Glynnis MacNicol’s memoir seems simple, even mundane: a straight, single woman turns 40 and faces the challenge of defining herself and her life in the absence of marriage and children. As a successful journalist living in New York, MacNicol is aware of the privilege that has allowed her to find fulfillment in work and friendship rather than conventional domesticity. But as the title of her beguiling autobiography — “No One Tells You This” — suggests, MacNicol struggles with the many unknowns that lie ahead. If her story doesn’t end with marriage and children, she wonders, “could it even be called a story?”
For MacNicol, like so many other women, 40 looms large as the biological cutoff for having children. She dryly articulates the way single women in their late 30s come to think of their lives as “a shifting math problem,” an experiment in how little time can be allowed to elapse between meeting a man and having a baby (“married next week, and pregnant the next morning?”). Eventually, she admits, “there was no way to make the numbers add up.”
So the calculus shifts again: Is this something she really wants? MacNicol’s business partner, single at 41, chooses to have a baby by herself, while MacNicol’s sister, married with two young children, discovers she’s pregnant just as she and her husband separate. Sitting alone in the early morning while she holds her sister’s newborn, MacNicol forces herself to confront the visceral appeal of a child with the murkier question of what her life would look like without one. That means taking her own life seriously, as the product of deliberate choice, “not simply a makeshift thing I’d constructed as a for-the-time-being existence.”
MacNicol chooses to mark her 40th birthday by spending it alone at a hipster motel in a Queens beach neighborhood. She buries her phone in her bag and reflects on the difference between her own looming fourth decade and her mother’s, who by that age was a married, stay-at-home mother of two young children. MacNicol, meanwhile, is extricating herself from a relationship with a married man, while carrying on an intense text-message flirtation with an unidentified celebrity.
Drawing this contrast between her mother’s life and her own feels like a throwback to an older generation of feminist stories, of 1970s daughters rebelling against 1950s values, but it’s a reminder of how those domestic pressures linger. MacNicol portrays her mother as an articulate, curious and highly educated woman who nevertheless chose an intensely domestic life, all but closed to the outside world except through books, and was shadowed by agoraphobia and her husband’s mental illness. Now struggling with Parkinson’s, which “whipped through her like a match on dry tinder,” MacNicol’s mother offers an object lesson that real lives are not as tidy as stories, and the endings we assign, happy or sad, aren’t really endings at all.
MacNicol adopts a tone of affectionate awe when writing about the important women in her life, the friends whose lives have intertwined with hers from her early days in the city as a 20-something waitress. This chosen family offers her support and companionship, but also a glimpse of the way that stories can twist and rupture. Over the course of the year that the memoir chronicles, these expected endings are in turn “unveiled to reveal the worst-case scenario.” Being a witness to tragedy — divorce, illness, stillbirth — places a guilty kind of pressure on the single protagonist, who worries that she’s becoming an “emotional vampire, borrowing other people’s misfortune and challenges as my own.” This sense of living outside the charmed circle of the nuclear family is persistent, but MacNicol comes to realize that this circle is much less secure than she has believed.
Life at that slight remove, she learns, can be liberating. On a road trip that runs via a dude ranch in Wyoming, MacNicol finds herself so awed and inspired by the landscape that when she gets home she arranges to fly right back and stay for a month, reasoning that this is exactly the sort of adventure she is supposed to be having, in a life beholden to nobody else’s plans. A young man with a motorbike offers a brief diversion, but he and the other men in the book, including an Icelandic tour guide and a boldly dishonest Tinder date, are not serious long-term romantic prospects. When there’s no clock ticking, MacNicol discovers, men become simply a source of pleasure. With that awareness comes power, the power of “furies and witches and sorceresses and harpies,” complete in themselves and in charge of their decisions.
There is undeniable luck and privilege in being able to shape one’s own story as a single woman, as MacNicol is careful to acknowledge. Still, it can be hard to feel grateful for our luck in the abstract, so MacNicol focuses instead on what it offers her: the opportunity, indeed the obligation, to choose the life she wants. And not just once, but over and over again.
Joanna Scutts, a literary critic and cultural historian, is the author of “The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It.” On July 26 at 7 p.m., Glynnis MacNicol will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
By Glynnis MacNicol
Simon & Schuster. 293 pp. $26