Gail Sheehy New York, NY: Random House; 2006
Gail Sheehy’s newest literary contribution to “boomer-lit” is as tantalizing as the ripe peach displayed on the book jacket. Sex and the Seasoned Woman is bursting with succulent story bites and juicy vignettes about midlife women who have rediscovered, redefined, and reincarnated themselves as sexual connoisseurs in the second half of their lives. Employing the formula that was first used in her bestseller Passages and then successfully sustained in several of her next books, the author explores phases in the “pursuit of the passionate life” and a series of predictable passages through the decades of second adulthood.
In Sex and the Seasoned Woman, Ms. Sheehy introduces us to an appealing assortment of women, many of whom have finished raising their children, have disentangled themselves from unsuccessful marriages, and are celebrating their new freedom as they embark on the rest of their lives. One of the women describes midlife as the “time to retrieve the raw materials of the person you were.” The author reminds us that “women live longer and their lives have many seasons” and that “change is good, natural, and essential.” Within this context, she encourages readers to live life with shameless curiosity, endorsing historian Betsy Prioleau’s concept of a “what-the-hell closing-time joie de vivre.”
The book’s jargon is certainly catchy (eg, Romantic Renaissance, Pilot Light Lover, Feisty 50s, Enduring 80s), and the personal testimonials offer enough show-stealing drama to impress even the most jaded of Oprah-watchers, but the characters seem far removed from the reality of most people’s lives. Although these women reflect diversity in many respects (age, race, geography, religion, and -- to some degree -- socioeconomic status), they are unnervingly similar in one regard: they seem to exist in a no-strings-attached universe. We know that Sheehy’s target audience belongs to the Sandwich Generation, yet the women in her book are completely low-carb -- they have slipped away entirely from the constraints of their bread.
The women in my midlife practice work hard to pay the bills, are relied upon for childcare of grandchildren, struggle to nurture their ailing spouses and parents, and often have health problems of their own. At first glance, it would appear that they have nothing in common with the happy-go-lucky heroines in Sheehy’s book. Of course, the author’s point is that these women were not necessarily happy, nor lucky, at the start of their journeys. They relied upon ingenuity and courage to recreate themselves as free-spirited, confident heroines. Their stories are often far-fetched and impractical, but there are kernels of applicable wisdom to savor. The reader will even learn a few things about Internet dating, and be invited to join the author’s Seasoned Women’s Network, which offers weblogs and an interactive message board.
If you are looking for a refresher course in pelvic anatomy, a how-to guide describing the mechanics and physiology of sexuality as we age, or practical advice about sexually transmitted diseases, you will not find it in this book. What you will find is a valuable section on “vaginal rehabilitation” containing advice from expert physicians, and a well-balanced, up-to-date discussion of hormone therapy. If you are troubled by decreased libido, a common complaint of midlife women, this book will not reveal any secret recipes for magical pills and potions -- although there is an intriguing chapter on sex toys.
The most valuable lesson in the 354-page book is that sexuality is a front-burner issue in women’s lives at any age and in any circumstance. Sheehy teaches us that self-reflection is the path to self-improvement and self-esteem, and that a fully evolved woman is a sexy woman. Whether you are interested in pursuing passion with a new lover, or in revitalizing the passion within your existing relationship, this book reminds us that the most powerful sexual organ is the brain -- it really is “mind over matter.” This message can resonate with any woman in any situation. The author empowers us to “do what you love and love will find you.” What a great concept! And, if that doesn’t work, I suggest reading Sex and the Seasoned Woman (with the title in full view) as you sit alone at Starbucks -- it is a guaranteed conversation starter.
Elizabeth H.G. Mandell, MD
Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology
Midlife Health Center
University of Virginia