Women’s Lives on Their Own Terms in Two New Books

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Between them, Glynnis MacNicol and Jo Piazza’s new books have appeared on more must-read lists this summer than we can count — including BuzzFeed, Elle.com, Goop, People, Cosmopolitan, Vulture, Refinery29, InStyle, and Town & Country, just to name a few. While MacNicol’s No One Tells You This is a memoir and Piazza’s Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win is a novel, the two books make for a delightful pairing, as both focus on women pushing back against expectations to create the lives they want. Parnassus Books will host these authors together next Tuesday, July 31, at 6:30 p.m. To celebrate this double-header event, we’re offering twice the usual reading experience today on Musing, with excerpts from each.

No One Tells You This_MacNicol

In No One Tells You This, her personal account of turning 40 and evaluating her life choices, MacNicol asks, “If the story doesn’t end with marriage or a child, what then?” (You may have seen her recent piece on that note for The New York Times: “I’m in My 40s, Child-Free and Happy. Why Won’t Anyone Believe Me?”) Rebecca Traister, author of All the Single Ladies, calls the book “a mapping of contemporary adulthood, unmoored from the institutions that once defined it for women.” As Vogue pointed out in a recent profile, “it is also a book about what David Brooks once called the odyssey years, that drawn-out phase of finding oneself that stretches far into adulthood—and what happens when those years butt up against one’s parents’ twilight years.”

Here’s how it begins:

For someone who has always been bad at math, I have a weird fixation on numbers.

Take my mother’s death. Officially my mother died on March 20. A Monday. This is the date on her death certificate, and the date on her gravestone. This is also what the staff at the nursing home north of Toronto, where my mother had lived for the past twenty-six months, told my father when they called him at seven that morning. My mother, they said, had died overnight.

I wanted more details, though. “Overnight” felt too nebulous. When my sister, Alexis, and I arrived the next day to retrieve the last of my mother’s possessions, it was the first thing I inquired about. Who exactly had found her? I asked the nursing attendant manning the staff desk that oversaw my mother’s wing, hoping this would lead to the specifics I was searching for.

The nurse was an older blond woman and she seemed puzzled by my question. “When a person is that ill,” she said, “we send someone in to see them every hour.” Behind her on the wall, in the frame reserved for pictures of recently deceased residents, was a picture of my mother. In loving memory read the goldplated plaque nailed to the bottom of the frame. It was a terrible picture, taken recently. My mother’s face was thin and frail, the confusion that had eaten up her mind apparent in the angry, taut expression. It made her look like a stranger. My mother, always so careful with her appearance, would have been horrified by the photo. She wasn’t even wearing lipstick.

I turned back to the nurse. I understood her confusion; there was exactly nothing mysterious about my mother’s death. She had been sick for a long time; the previous Wednesday a specialist had told us she probably had six months, “give or take.”

Still, I tried again. I concentrated on sounding calm—I’d long ago learned this was the best way to deal with medical staff—as if I was just making casual conversation. But the truth was that since the previous morning, when my father and then, minutes later, my sister had called to tell me the news, I’d been preoccupied with this small bit of information: I wanted to know the exact minute my mother had died. And barring that, I wanted a time stamp on the last instance they’d seen her alive. I had obsessively time-stamped my journals as a child, carefully watching the second hand on my Mickey Mouse alarm clock, and then furiously scribbling down the numbers before it ticked on, as if this detail would give more authenticity to my record. I wanted to be able to do the same for my accounting of the end of my mother’s life. It felt like a loose thread in an otherwise perfectly woven tapestry I was trying to reattach correctly.

I hadn’t yet shed a single tear. I had a vague sense they were on the horizon, but the tsunami of emotions brought on by her loss wouldn’t reach me for a while yet. In the meantime, I set about constructing a narrative around my mother’s death that made sense, a path I could funnel everything down when grief arrived and tried to wreak havoc on me. So many of the decisions I’d made in my life had been the result of stories I’d read, or heard, or was trying to emulate—there was a safety there, I knew. I also knew there was an irrefutability to numbers that I could rely on to nail everything else down.

From the book No One Tells You This by Glynnis MacNicol. Copyright © 2018 by Glynnis MacNicol. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Charlotte Walsh_Cover

Elle magazine calls Piazza’s fourth novel, Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win, a “perfectly timed” novel, for the way it portrays the often contradictory pressures of career, family, politics, and privacy. Charlotte does like to win — specifically, she wants to win a Senate race against a sleazy opponent — but as she finds out, women aren’t always applauded when they state their ambitions so plainly. In her blurb for the book, Camille Perri, author of The Assistants and When Katie Met Cassidy, describes it as “a rallying cry to the #TimesUp generation . . . smart, fierce, and so much fun to read.”

The story starts like so:

Tell people one true thing before you tell them a lie. Then it will be easier for them to believe the lie.

It wasn’t the best advice Marty Walsh ever gave to his daughter Charlotte, but it had stuck with her for almost forty years. Marty had been a garbage collector by trade, though he insisted “sanitation specialist” had a smarter ring to it. He wasn’t a successful man by most people’s standards and he died drunk in his bed before his fiftieth birthday. Now his daughter was running for the United States Senate and Marty’s words held a new utility for her.
Charlotte hadn’t expected her campaign to begin with an interrogation—an aggressive one at that—but the questions just kept coming.

“Have you ever used any drugs besides pot?”

“No.”

“Paid any undocumented workers under the table?”

“Nope.”

“Ever killed anyone?”

“Not yet.”

“Ever get an abortion?”

“No.”

“Infidelity in your marriage? Affairs? Secret ex-husband?”

“I love my husband. We don’t have anything to hide.” One of those things is true. Charlotte punctuated her sentence with a chuckle, hoping the laughter would sooth her nerves and add confidence to her answer.

Josh Pratt, who if all went well today would sign on to be her campaign manager, twisted his mouth in a way that told Charlotte he wasn’t sure he believed her. He had a tiny blob of something yellow, maybe mustard, on the side of his thin lips. As he asked his questions, Charlotte had a hard time focusing on anything except for the golden dribble.

I’m running for national political office, she wanted to answer back. Ask me my thoughts on immigration, on the flat tax, on school vouchers, abortion rights. How much do I think we can raise the minimum wage? Can I bring more jobs to Pennsylvania? Will I fight for college tuition assistance? What do I think about trade with the Chinese? Why does my marriage matter?

“You’re thinking, ‘Why does it matter?’ Why does your husband matter?” Josh read her mind. “Your husband matters. Your marriage matters. As a woman, you bear the burden of having to appear to be charismatic, smart, well-groomed, nice, but not too nice. If you’re married, you need to look happily married. If you have kids, you should be the mother of the year.”

“Goddammit. It’s 2017. There are plenty of women in Congress. A woman ran for president. It shouldn’t matter that I don’t have a penis.” Charlotte rolled her eyes. “It’s unbelievable that we have to deal with that kind of shit anymore.

“Well, I’m sorry, but it matters a lot.” Josh shot her a stoic stare. “You do still have to deal with this shit. No one likes to say that out loud, but it’s true. You’re running in a state that’s never elected a woman to the Senate or as governor. That should tell you something.”

“Tug Slaughter is a serial philanderer,” Charlotte fired back at Josh.

Pennsylvania’s longtime incumbent senator Ted “Tug” Slaughter had been married three times—his current wife was twenty years younger than he. The man was a walking cliché. For more than forty years, Slaughter had reigned as the senior senator from the state. Most men in Congress would be easy to miss in a crowd. Not Slaughter. Pushing eighty, the man still oozed raw ego. He was known to strip his shirt off and perform sit-ups onstage at events. Just last month he’d climbed the trestle of the Black Bridge in Marshfield Station with a pack of teenagers and leapt into the icy Delaware River below. A week earlier he’d announced that he’d donated a kidney to a complete stranger he’d met at an Eagles game.

“It’s true, Tug does more cocktail waitresses than he does lawmaking, but he’s not the one who needs to create a legitimate candidacy. You do.” Josh had an answer for everything.

From the book Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win by Jo Piazza. Copyright © 2018 by Jo Piazza. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Join us at Parnassus Books for a book signing and discussion with both authors:

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Glynnis MacNicol and Jo Piazza
Tuesday, July 31, at 6:30 p.m.
This event is open to the public and free to attend!