I'd just finished correcting the proofs of Perfectly Fine ... when someone drew my attention to Helen Walmsley-Johnson's recently published The Invisible Woman: Taking on the Vintage Years (Icon Books, 2015). Needless to say, I got hold of a copy at once - and loved it.
It's a book about life for women turning 50 - a non-fiction equivalent, if you like, of my novel Perfectly Fine ... And there were so many points in the book that made me smile - even laugh! - not because they were necessarily funny (though there's plenty of humour in the book) but because they dealt with the very issues I'd presented fictionally in the character of Olivia Penn, who is just hitting fifty. There were certain bits that could almost have been written by Olivia Penn herself - or which she would certainly have recognised as her own experience. Here are just a couple of examples.
In the introduction Helen Walmsley-Johnson characterises the two contrasting ways in which women are thought to respond to hitting middle age: the Resisters and the Accepters. But what of the women, she asks, 'who have no option but to grit their teeth and get on with life as they always have but find the cards stacked against them?' This is exactly Olivia's position in the novel - and, I would guess, pretty much the position of most women. In terms of her profession, Olivia suddenly finds herself side-lined; when she goes to a restaurant on her own, she's treated with a subtle disrespect she's not used to; even her children's fiftieth birthday present to her defines her in terms of her 'age needs' - the needs of her aging body - rather than being something for her 'as a person' .
One of Olivia's classes presents her with a 'humorous' (???) birthday card:
And someone had let the cat out of the bag to my A2 students who presented me with a large card showing an old banger heading for the brow of a hill topped with a 50 speed limit sign. On the front it said, ‘DON’T WORRY ABOUT GOING OVER THE HILL. JUST THINK OF THE VIEW ON THE OTHER SIDE.’ You opened the card to see that the road went straight to a cliff edge and a sheer drop to the sea.
And, as you can imagine, I smiled when I read the following in Helen's book:
... there's a large chunk of society who do indeed think that by the time we're 50 we middle agers have zipped up the well-lit motorway of earlier life, bounced over the junction at the top and are now at least halfway down the B-road on the other side with no brakes, no lights, bad eyesight and a shaky grip on the steering wheel.
Of course, there are many differences in the situations and experiences of the women in the two books. The fictional Olivia Penn has much more financial security and less obvious trauma in her life than the 'real' Helen. I wanted to show how even a woman who has pretty much everything a reasonable person might want - though she's had to work hard for it and really throw herself into life - is subject to the psychological damage inflicted by pervasive ageism and sexism.
Perfectly Fine by Heather Reyes is published by Oxygen Books on 16 July 2015. Pre-order today at amzn.to/1LUfMCV