Frisky Reads: Spinster Examines The Single Life, Comes Up Short

The pressure to get married is insidious, sneaking up on you when you least expect it. No matter how you feel about your own fate, the world around you is sprinkled with tiny reminders, from your cousin’s giant engagement ring to the horrible targeted ads you get on Facebook after watching just ONE hungover marathon of “Say Yes To The Dress.” The closer you march towards 30 or 35 or 40, unattached and freewheeling, the louder the whispers become. Marriage transforms from an abstract concept to something to actively worry about, lest you end up alone and mouldering, a spinster living in a darkened apartment surrounded by empty tunafish cans and piles of unread New Yorkers. It’s a fate to be avoided. But according to Kate Bolick’s new book, Spinster, women should re-examine their definition of the word and all it entails. Spinsterhood is no longer an insult, but a new way of life.

The book can be seen as an expansion on Bolick’s 2011 cover story for The Atlantic in which she began to explore the notion that marriage doesn’t have to be the end goal for all women. Looking at her own past, littered with ended relationships, and gazing into the abyss of her forties, Bolick realized that if she didn’t find someone to settle down with, and fast, she’d have to resign herself to being alone. Four years later, Spinster furthers the discussion.

The dictionary definition of a spinster is “an unmarried woman, typically an older woman beyond the usual age for marriage.” It’s classified as a “derogatory” noun. I’d like to defer to the great equalizer of modern language, Urban Dictionary, for their inclusive and more egalitarian interpretation. The second most popular definition of the word includes this note: “A woman who never enters marriage contract is so smart.”

Bolick’s definition is a little softer than the traditional. She makes reference to her “spinster wish” which is really just “shorthand for the extravagant pleasures of simply being alone.” If Bolick had stuck with this assertion throughout the rest of her book, and really focused on all the reasons why spinsterhood is worth embracing, it would’ve been much stronger. Subverting the negative connotations of spinsterhood and making it about choice and pleasure as opposed to a resigned acceptance of romantic failure is what I thought Spinster would be about, but instead, I got something quite different.

The opening line of the book is pretty clear in its intent: “Whom to marry, and when will it happen — these two definitions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn’t practice.” I was taken aback by the generalization. Sure, lots of women think about getting married, but to call that very question a defining principle of every woman’s existence seems presumptuous. Bolick is right that the pressure to think about marriage, and decide where you stand on it, is present for women more so than of men, but to say it defines our existence seems old-fashioned. To be fair, the rest of Bolick’s book is kind of dated. Her view of spinsterhood is romantic and empowered at best and overly sentimental at worst. In a diary entry she notes that the perfect “spinster wish” for a Sunday includes reading all day and two naps, like being alone is just a vacation from the real work of combing the globe looking for a mate.

For the most part, Bolick treats the desire for spinsterhood as a direct reaction to relationships that fall apart. The book is peppered with stories of Bolick’s various relationships, all of which ended in their own way for myriad reasons. There is very little downtime between these relationships, as she bounces back and forth between men. She lingers in a relationship that isn’t working while casting an eye out for someone else, even falling for that person while still entangled with the other. For her, spinsterhood isn’t an inevitability, it’s a break from the near constant thrum of being coupled.

To many so-called “spinsters,” the choice to remain single, never marry and live life alone is an empowering one, not a bitter pill swallowed after a decade full of unsatisfying relationships and numerous failed attempts at coupling. It’s a stance against the status quo. Some people simply don’t want to live in thrall of someone else, and the concept of marriage is as unappealing to them as staying single is to others. The institution of marriage is fraught with a variety of other tensions, divorce rates are nothing to scoff at, and opting out of the rush to walk down the aisle shouldn’t be portrayed as something only those who’ve had a “problem” finding a mate begrudgingly decide to do. For many of happily, willingly single women, spinsterhood is its own choice, made with a clear mind and a desire for a certain, different kind of life.

People aren’t really clamoring to get married and settle down anymore. Women of my generation are putting off marriage until later in life, and if they do choose to settle down with someone, the arrangements aren’t necessarily celebrated with a white dress, a big cake and a lot of fanfare. Lifelong domestic partnerships are a viable option that let you enjoy the splendors of companionship without the potential legal and financial fallout associated with divorce. At the end of the day, marriage is a legal agreement that can be good for taxes — and how long will that last, as marriage becomes less common? — but bad for everything else in your life if it goes sour.

In Spinster, I was looking for an exaltation of a life lived blissfully alone, but what I got was a rambling argument for spinsterhood as a last ditch route to take when the journey towards conventional marriage hits a standstill. Despite her initial rallying cry that women should wear their proudly-alone status like a badge of pride, Bolick seems to be having a hard time doing that herself. Perhaps if she had taken the time to really sit with her spinsterhood, she’d be able to recognize that being alone, even for a little bit, really isn’t that bad. If you choose to embark on a solo life, do it with pride.

Spinster hits bookstore shelves today.