BOOK REVIEW / MEMOIRS : Life as a 40ish, Liberal, Gay, Protective and Loving Mom : WHAT IT’S LIKE TO LIVE NOW b<i> y Meredith Maran</i> , Bantam Books $21.95, 338 pages


It is a difficult demographic footprint upon which to build a sturdy emotional life: female, 40s, left-of-liberal politics, the Jewish anxiety chromosome, hypercritical parents, divorce, joint custody--and, oh yeah, for the last decade author Meredith Maran has been in love with another woman.

Worse yet, the 43-year-old writer is wary of the refuge that is middle-aged, middle-class life in America. She still wants her two boys to experience the urban ethnic soup of public school. She wants to do meaningful work, which translates into not enough income and a first home in a tough section of Oakland.

She wants to age with her scruples intact, which only adds to her anguish: Wouldn’t a good mom (the kind she’s yearned for all her life) do whatever it took, make whatever compromises were necessary, to scuttle her kids off to the safety of the suburbs where they spent their early, nuclear family years?


And when the real estate boom hands her enough equity to step up, she can’t just do it. She has to feel guilty and ambivalent about it--as she does, with great humor, about almost everything, whether it be allowing her kids to eat junk food or fretting that they won’t grow up to be men of great feeling, because they’re too busy learning not to get mugged at the commuter train station.

Maran is a perfectly preserved souvenir of that brief moment--the late 1960s and early ‘70s--when a generation of kids, bred on their parents’ dreams of entitlement, actually took their legacy seriously and addressed the question of what they wanted society to be.

It was--is, for those, like Maran, who still fight the good fight--a Sisyphean struggle, since they were outnumbered by the vast status quo. Despite her outward ebullience, Maran is always the odd one out, always feeling a bit lonely and vulnerable, always questioning whether the people who so clearly love her in fact do.

Wanting to live right can be exhausting business: In addition to the internalized, criticizing voice of her mother, Maran carries with her the nagging, finger-wagging voice of political correctness. It’s a lot for a working mom to schlep around.

She bears her burden with unusual candor. Maran’s story of that first weekend with Ann makes her sound like a West Coast, distaff Woody Allen, with a good dollop more compassion: She can’t bring Ann home because her ex-husband will be around with her two boys. She can’t take her anywhere where they might be recognized. She can, and does, make a reservation at a gay vacation retreat in Northern California--but then, a model of ambivalence, she insists on twin beds.

And she is (will she allow herself to believe this reviewer, this stranger?) a perfect demon of a mom, so devoted to her two boys that you imagine she could protect them from anything by sheer dint of will.


She can rest easy on one score: These boys are loved and they know it, and it’s a joy to read about the three of them together. The four of them, actually, since Ann so nicely complements her somewhat more flamboyant partner.


My only hesitation? Like any of us (and I am Maran’s sympathetic contemporary) who thought we were going to change the world, she’s a little preachy. She knows ; she extrapolates from her own experience to those universal truths that can sound so smug.

When she sticks with experience, she’s a delight. Yes, she can get a bit glib and antic, but that’s what any oversensitive person does when they want to hide the fact that their psyche aches.

It’s when she feels the need to step up onto a soapbox, to make sure we’ve all heard what she has to say, that the tempo slows and the reader’s eyes can glaze. The problem with rhetoric now is the same problem people finally began to have with rhetoric then, in the ‘60s: It’s talk. It doesn’t quite speak to the subtleties of daily life--the nuances Maran is so adept at expressing.

Luckily, she doesn’t grandstand too often. Much of this is the story of an interesting process, frankly told. People who don’t get it may find her too weird for words, but it’s their loss. She is our gain, if we let her be.