Sometimes a book is so good that reading it becomes a part of your life cycle. “Smart Women,” a quintessentially ‘80s Judy Blume novel about a couple of divorced mothers who moved to Boulder, CO to start over, is not really that kind of book. It’s a pretty good book, not great. While the back of my battered copy of the novel reads “May just be the most emotionally satisfying big bestseller of 1984 . . . compulsively readable . . . triggers both laughter and tears . . . you’ll be utterly captivated” (thanks, shoulder-padded ladies of “Working Woman”), reviews on goodreads.com include the phrases “mediocre at best . . . robotic, predictable, and blah!” “This book was not about any smart women, it was about stupid women and their stupid mistakes” “all of them . . . were absolutely horrible people, who were incredibly miserable in their amoral, meaningless lives.” Actually that last one sort of makes you want to read it, right? “Smart Women” is no great classic, but it is worth reading, and somehow I have managed to find it at three touchstone moments in my life. So I guess it has become a part of my life cycle after all.
I first found “Smart Women” as an unhappy newlywed in Fort Myers, Florida, a town best known as one of the centers of the housing bubble crashes of the mid-to-late aughts and as a frequent filming location of hit TV series “COPS.” Fort Myers is where Ohioans and Michiganders go to die, for the sole reason that it’s directly down I-75 from the Midwest and there’s no snow to shovel. It is strip malls and never-ending blistering hot summer sun. It is not the place for a (too) young, educated couple to start a family. But start a family we did, and I spent countless hours down there just circling the man-made lakes with their fountains (to keep the waters moving so the mosquitoes didn’t breed) in our apartment complex, watching the hideous Muscovy ducks make violent love to each other while pushing a stroller containing my first son. He was born two months before we moved there in diametrically opposite Seattle, Washington, where his conception had necessitated my dropping out of law school.
I circled the apartments and watched “Cagney and Lacey” because we didn’t have cable and I circled my small collection of novels until we discovered the public library. I can’t remember if my copy of “Smart Women” came from the Fort Myers public library, because they did have free old books there, or if it came from my grandma’s basement like a lot of the other books I want to talk about on this blog. But I remember I read it for the first time in Florida, and I remember something in the novel pulled at the core of me. Freshly crapped out of the Pacific Northwest into uncultured sun-blasted hell, I yearned for the kitschy quirky hippie mountain town described in the book. The opening scene took place in one of the lead character’s patio Jacuzzi. I could smell the crisp mountain air and cedar. I also yearned for the 1980s, probably because of all that “Cagney and Lacey” I’d been watching. But did I dare yet yearn for the freedoms and friendships enjoyed by these untethered women?
The second time I read “Smart Women” was in early 2015, as my then ten-year-old marriage was coming to a crashing end. I can’t remember if I read it before or after we decided to divorce, before or after I moved to my first post-marital home on the too-cheesily-named-for-a-writer-to-make-it-up Independence Street. A lot has happened since then. But I do remember that I found a whole new depth and dimension to the book as a woman herself on the brink of divorce. I found it both hopeful and depressing, hopeful because by the end the women mostly find happiness and stability, but depressing because they all start out the story at levels of independence that I found hard to believe I would ever achieve. They’d all been divorced for about five years at the start of the book, and had well established careers and personal lives. I had been a stay at home mother since dropping out of law school, had only started making social contact with the outside world again in the previous year, and didn’t even know where to start with figuring out my career. I related to the book, I so wanted to relate to it even more, but found it hard to believe I could ever really get to where Margo and B.B. and Clare were - “They cope with it all” says the back cover. I was having trouble coping with anything. And all those judgments of the characters I mentioned from the goodreads reviews before, calling them stupid and selfish, miserable and amoral? I hadn’t read those reviews yet, but I certainly felt a lot of those judgments on myself.
Now, picking “Smart Women” up again this month, after almost a year and a half of living on my own, I find it very encouraging that I can now more fully relate to the characters. I’m in school and finally on a career path, have more confidence in my skills as a single parent and as the leader of a household, and have a much more established social network. I’ve also stopped listening to those hateful voices of judgment, both interior and exterior. I have confidence. I am coping. It’s not out of the realm of possibility to think that the next time I crack open this book I could be relaxing in my very own patio Jacuzzi. Here’s hoping.