What does a hot mess look like at fifty? It is not pretty. Stella Grey’s Mid-Life Ex-Wife is equal parts car crash and page turner as she plumbs the depths of Internet dating for women of a certain age. Grey is brassy, a quick wit and unafraid to share intimate details better left unmentioned (I really didn’t need to know about the date that got interrupted because she had diarrhea or her less-than-Penthouse-Forum-quality cyber and phone sex sessions), but too often leans into the darker parts of her persona - her insecurities, bitterness, and frustration, to make her memoir a rewarding use of your time.
The absence of levity to cut the acidity of Grey’s dating struggles is the book’s main failing. As a meditation on being thrust into singledom in middle age, there was an interesting story to tell, like the complex web of norms that now attend texting, email, and first dates, and this information occasionally leaks out, but mostly, Grey is pissy - she gets pissy with guys who call her out for lying about her age, she gets pissy with guys who call her out for her weight, she gets pissy with guys who do not respond to her advances, and she gets pissy with guys who do, but then decide not to pursue her further. In Grey’s world, the villains are the men rejecting her, either because they are trolling for shinier, younger (less cynical) versions of her or miss her unique charms. In this, her lament becomes the fun house mirror version of “nice guys” complaining women are not interested in them.
To her credit, Grey shows the seductiveness and the limitation of online dating. The computer screen (and to a lesser degree the mobile phone) is Grey’s security blanket but over and over she foists herself on her own electronic petard. Offered the opportunity to meet men in real life, she gets annoyed if they won’t engage in lengthy pre-meeting email exchanges. On the other hand, she relishes the safety and sterility of electronic back and forth while cringing at the face-to-face experience. It is almost like she wants to fail or, possibly, fears the rejection she experiences on at least one occasion when flirty online exchanges fizzle in real life due (according to her) to her intended’s disappointment in her appearance.
Of course, Grey turns a blind eye to the shortcomings others may see - she unabashedly drinks excessively, rarely mentions anything approaching exercise, and leans into the same type of criticism of physical appearance in others she bemoans when applied to her. But those are straw men (or is it straw women?) arguments that are easy for her to knock down but do not offer much in the way of insight. And the black box of how her own marriage ended, under what circumstances, and what emotional fall out she experienced is largely missing - yet it is unquestionably a HUGE piece of the puzzle and its absence makes the book’s center seem particularly hollow.
In a moment of introspection, she refers to herself as a “sad middle-aged woman who had the temerity to need love.” And there it is - and if there was more of this vulnerability and less a screed against men she puts into one of two buckets — men who want a no hassle relationship or men who consume too much pornography — perhaps I would have felt more sympathetic toward her cause. Instead, it is page after page of pointless message arguments with strangers over whether to swap surnames or phone numbers when she can not even get to a first meeting and feels far more comfortable with electronic pen pals. Grey directs her blame outward to men who do not fancy her but at the same time does little to indicate personal growth.
Long into the book she begins chatting with a man named Andrew who she meets at a coffee shop and immediately invests in - practicing salsa dancing in her home (he mentioned he likes it), researching the local gym he attends, and parsing his comments with the skill of a Talmudic scholar, only to find out that he does not even know her name and their interactions, pregnant with potential to her, are just a time waster for him while he avoids doing work. It is heart breaking but also head shaking. Grey engages in the type of behavior that were she a man we would immediately read as creepy, desperate, and possibly a bit stalkerish, but we are supposed to find this quirky, endearing, and normal?
And just when all hope seems lost, when Grey is in the process of deleting her fourteen (!) dating website profiles, “Edward” pops up on one of the sites, they fall in love and live happily ever after. I shit you not. If it all seems too pat, too convenient, too made-for-Hollywood, you would not be alone in that assessment. After all, the blurb on the cover touts this dumpster fire as a “Bridget Jones For The Internet Age.” What good would publishing such a book be if the heroine ended up drowning her sorrows at the bottom of a wine bottle? And the happily-ever-after ending also puts the bulk of the book in a much different light. Instead of it standing as a cautionary tale about attempting to date in middle age, with all the associated pitfalls and disappointments, Mid-Life becomes a story of perseverance and faith, that you too can find love (just around the corner in fact!) if you are willing to muddle through myriad bad dates, rookie mistakes, and your own insecurities. I’m not buying it, am glad I didn’t (I checked it out for free from my public library), and neither should you.
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