Reviewed by Alison Buckholtz
Aphorisms about turning forty are easy to find—just check out the cheeky birthday cards at any drugstore. Half of them declare the end is nigh, and the other half insist that life is just beginning. Pamela Druckerman, author of the new memoir There Are No Grown-Ups: A Midlife Coming-of-Age Story, comes down firmly on the more optimistic end.
But this interlinked series of essays is far from flip. Although many of Druckerman’s sentences and situations are laugh-out-loud funny, ultimately she presents a thoughtful and moving case for why the big 4-0 is “the age when we become who we are.”
Druckerman, a New York Times columnist and author of the bestselling Bringing Up Bébé, has a particular genius for melding the universally-shared occurrence with her own, very specific experience as an American woman living in Paris. She’s at the height of her power here. In chapters like “How to Find Your Calling,” “How to be an Expert,” “How to Give Advice,” and “How to Say No,” she analyzes, social anthropology-style, dilemmas and situations many upper-middle-class Americans and Europeans face in their fourth decade. But if she’s an anthropologist here, she’s one who studies herself and her motives as rigorously as she examines the culture that surrounds her.
The chapter “How to Make Friends,” for example, builds on an idea Druckerman introduces earlier in the book: that because she didn’t have a solid sense of herself during early adulthood, she was attracted to narcissists and users. That’s the entry point allowing her to flesh out the contrast between the French way of forming friendships with the American way. Same-sex female friendships in France progress slowly at first, and they prize bluntness and honesty. By contrast, Druckerman’s American friendships were often fueled by “adrenaline-filled first impressions,” and each woman was required to be the other’s blindly loyal cheerleader and supporter.
As her forties progressed, and self-assurance replaced self-consciousness, Druckerman has migrated to the French approach. It’s more comforting because it “comes with a kind of tenure” – after all, among female friends in France, “The screening process has been so extensive, you can be confident that you have the part in perpetuity.” If she now seems aloof to other American expats in her circle, she says, it’s only because she’s learned the value in taking her time to get to know someone.
But “aloof” is not a word anyone would associate with Druckerman’s literary voice. As an author guiding readers through a significant passage, she’s honest, vulnerable, and funny from the first pages, freely acknowledging contradictions that she still hasn’t been able to tame. (It brings to mind Jill Ker Conway’s belief that “it’s in writing memoirs that we are obligated to say what the total constellation of all our roles means to us. And that’s the real dilemma of the modern consciousness.”)
It helps that Druckerman’s opening essays paint a compassionate and relatable portrait of her confused younger self—a girl growing up in 1980s Miami among relatives who refused to talk about anything unpleasant. Most taboo topics were hiding in plain sight, like not having as much money as their neighbors, her parents’ fundamental incompatibility, and the fate of their Russian-Jewish relatives during the Holocaust.
But no matter how obvious the problem, her mother insisted that everything was fine. At home, she says, “we didn’t gather facts into patterns, analyze our own experiences or speculate about other people. Nor did we discuss our own history, ethnicity or social class. Pointing out complicated truths just made everyone uncomfortable.”
It’s not very good training for a writer—or any 21st-century adult trying to determine her place in the world. And that’s what makes Druckerman’s personal story so compelling. Not only did she teach herself to be a “grown-up” – a woman, wife, mother, and contributor to the culture–but she documents her own decades-long transformation in a way that’s genuinely instructive.
“How to be Wise” is in fact one of the chapters in the book. In it, Druckerman introduces the concept of “crystallized intelligence,” the idea that those in midlife have the ability to draw conclusions, make judgments based on their experiences and apply their knowledge to new situations. Druckerman likes this to the “index cards” that pop up in her head, now that she’s in her late forties, when she faces a problem that bears a resemblance to something she’s already been through or heard about from others. It reminds her of how similar events turned out and helps guide her to the right conclusions faster.
She’s still “far from wise,” she cautions, “but being slightly less clueless is an improvement, and I’ll take it. My index cards have made me happier. They’re the start, at least, of what I craved while growing up: to have more knowledge, less regret and a better grasp of what’s happening.”
That definition of being a grown-up isn’t catchy enough for a 40th birthday card, but it sure is a lot more useful.
About the Author:
Pamela Druckerman is the author of four books including Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, which has been translated into 27 languages. She’s also a contributing opinion writer at The New York Times.
About the Reviewer:
Alison Buckholtz is author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War (Tarcher/Penguin). She wrote the “Deployment Diary” column on Slate.com from 2009-2010, and her other articles and essays have been published in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Real Simple, Parenting, Washingtonian Magazine, Salon.com and many other publications. As an advocate for military families, she has appeared on NBC Nightly News, NPR, and in national news stories. Her L.A. Times op-ed, “An ‘It Gets Better’ for the troops,” was the inspiration for a national public service announcement campaign about military suicides.
She received an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Virginia and a B.A. in English Literature (Honors, Phi Beta Kappa) from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She also completed a year of undergraduate study at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1997-98 she lived in Jerusalem, Israel as a recipient of a Dorot Foundation postgraduate fellowship. She now lives in the Washington, DC area with her husband, an active-duty Naval officer, and two children.