A woman who takes longer than usual to get married has long been a subject of fascination—consider Anne Elliot in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. But lately more literary attention than ever has been devoted to the intelligent woman who stays single into her late 30s, though the new popular heroine of the genre—Bridget Jones or Carrie Bradshaw—eventually meets a man and settles down, like her predecessor. She does not stay single and keep cavorting after she loses her looks. A longer period of play, we are willing to entertain; but not a life without marriage, not a woman in her 40s and 50s, alone in an eccentrically decorated studio apartment on the Upper East Side with her cat and dog. In her new memoir, Better Than Sane: Tales From a Dangling Girl, Alison Rose takes on this interesting taboo without quite enough self-reflection to do it justice.
On the surface, Rose’s style mimics that of the smart women writers of her youth: the laconic, nervous melancholy of Joan Didion and Renata Adler, with a hint of Jean Rhys. But without these writers’ analytic brio and interest in the larger world, the depressive mood becomes as fluffy and overwrought as a very articulate teenager’s diary. Rose’s memoir, which has been expanded from an article written for TheNew Yorker in 1996, begins with her lonely childhood in California, when her best friends were a collection of pencils, and her handsome bullying psychiatrist father called her “Personality Minus.” It then moves through her unstable relationships with a stream of strange and glamorously damaged men, including Burt Lancaster’s son and an unnamed “rock ‘n’ roll icon.” Even though Rose is 60, her language is that of early adolescence, with its smattering of French words (“he had shirts that took the borderline tristesse right out of my head”), its made-up childlike patois (“he had very wishy legs”), and its insistence on referring to her workplace (The New Yorker) as “School.”
One of Rose’s great heroes is J. D. Salinger, and throughout Better Than Sane she fashions herself as one of Salinger’s precocious, charming little girls, an Esme or Franny or Phoebe, frozen in time. There is something deeply unsettling about Rose’s lingering girlishness, the teddy bears she keeps on her window sill with their tiny polka-dotted clothes, the rag doll that lies face down on a chair, not to mention the incessant baby talk and nonsense ditties. It gets so extreme in parts that one feels as if one should politely look away; it seems almost ghoulish for a woman in her 40s and 50s to be clinging so tightly to pre-pubescence. There is something painful in the futility of it, of trying to preserve the fleeting girl, the delicate, transient moment of sexual awakening, that is far more disturbing than women trying to hold onto the dewy beauty of their early 20s.
In spite of her preternatural innocence, the high point of Rose’s life seems to be her affairs and near affairs with a gaggle of writers at The New Yorker: Harold Brodkey and George Trow and others she calls “Personality Plus” and “Mr. Normalcy” and “Europe.” Some of these men are married, and Rose is often coy about whether she was sleeping with them or just having highly substantive flirtations. She is worshipful of all of them in a way that seems anachronistic: At one point, she goes to a writer’s house and cleans up his disgusting kitchen. Though she was originally employed at The New Yorker as a receptionist and later wrote for the magazine, she seems to be striving for the position of in-house muse. The writers say things to her that are, according to her, “as good as anything they wrote.” At one point, George Trow tells her “you can’t be the smartest person who doesn’t do anything forever.” But she is so busy with these affairs that it does seem as if all she does is manage her amitiés amoureuses. In some sense the one-room apartment she describes in such loving detail is a museum to the love that she inspired in men. She desperately collects validation: This one thinks she is brilliant; this one admires her exquisite style of sadness. She saves every piece of paper, seven shopping bags full of mementos from her lovers, notes, postcards, drawings; jotted-down compliments, scraps of conversations; she has two boxes full of photocopies and drafts of her letters to them, neatly tied together. … It is as if this accumulated love—ephemeral, formless, unsatisfying—is her work of art, her contribution to the world.
Rose’s eternal girlishness shows the process of aging and decay too plainly. There is, in the 50-year-old woman with stuffed animals, too poignant and graphic a snapshot of our mortality. Though it isn’t at all fair, this Salinger-esque flight from womanhood is somehow farmoredisturbing than the Peter- Pannishness of men who try to retard the passage of time. Like Didion or Adler, Rose spends a lot of time languishing stylishly on the edge of a nervous breakdown. But the book bogs down where the life does: Nothing happens; nothing seems to matter; or everything matters, the way it does when you are 15. Rose manages to be astonishingly self-conscious without being remotely self-aware. It is strange, in fact, that Rose’s father was a psychiatrist, and that she tells us she was in therapy for 30 years, because she lacks even the mildest inclination toward introspection. The cleverness of the book, the constant “drollness,” as Rose likes to call it—the enigmatic, witty things people are always saying—masks the fact that beneath all of this studied unconventionality is a kind of barrenness. “Maybe it’s true that I am happier with animals or a French dress or palm trees than with human company,” she writes at one point, and there is something oddly flat and de-peopled about her prose. (If there is any question about the gravity of her problems with intimacy, one has only to look at her buying a dog: “When I looked into the cages I nearly fainted: I wanted a silky white dog—something totally mine—but did I actually want to live with some little animal? I put a white dog, a girl dog, on ‘hold.’ “)
There is in Rose’s nervous search for affection a narcissism that does not allow for the depth of connection that would, say, differentiate among her male friends. And so in the end, her carefully curated affairs are jumbled together into one unsatisfying mess. It’s impossible to remember which man is which, or to care. Without any real intimacy with anyone else, she can’t look outside herself, or even at herself, deeply enough to fulfill the artistic promise of her obvious intelligence. One argument for marriage, perhaps.