The Slippery Year

Time and again, while reading Melanie Gideon’s sharply insightful The Slippery Year: A Meditation on Happily Ever After, I had the vaguely unsettling feeling that someone else had written the story of my own current life. No, it’s true, my husband is not prone to buying hulking, macho adventure vans on the Internet, as Gideon’s is, nor have I had to contend with the death of a beloved family dog or, to my knowledge, ever had Julia Child over to my home for dinner. But (I say, waving these plot points away with the back of my hand) these are mere technicalities. Gideon has cast a hook down through the amusing surface details of her own more-or-less happy modern middle-class family life and come up with deep truths about marriage, motherhood, aging, friendship and other things that occupy women who’ve confidently cruised past 40 — only to panic and weave as 50 looms large ahead.

“One day when I was sitting in the carpool line waiting to pick my son up from school, it occurred to me that I had been sleepwalking through my life. This realization wasn’t precipitated by some traumatic event. I did not have cancer. My parents had not abused me,” Gideon’s book begins. “I was in a good marriage to a kind man. But something wasn’t right. I felt empty — an unrelenting, existential kind of emptiness. By all markers I was living a happy enough existence, but somehow I wasn’t feeling it.”

You might think a book with an opening like that would be whiny, infected by an irritating middle-class malaise; or maybe cheesily uplifting and life-messagey. The Slippery Year is none of those things. (Well, okay, maybe a little middle-class malaise-y, but not, thanks to Gideon’s self-deprecating humor, irritatingly so.) It is obliquely insightful and quirkily witty, with moments of touching tenderness to be found amid Gideon’s tough talk.

The slippery year in question is a timespan chronicled in a dozen funny and revealing anecdotes — one for each month. Gideon’s moment of awareness dawns during a time when her life is heavily shaped by the schedule of her nine-year-old son, Ben (appropriately, then, the book begins not in January but September — the true new year for schoolchildren and parents alike), and is triggered by her husband’s parallel midlife crisis: In an expanded version of an essay that first appeared in The New York Times’ “Modern Love” column, she recounts the consequences of his online purchase of a camper van — a decision meant to kick-start the family’s stalled sense of adventure.

The vehicle comes complete with Porta Potti, which, Gideon is repulsed to learn, must be emptied by hand, and a diesel engine that may be energy efficient but is so noisy it precludes conversation. “So we develop a primitive sign language consisting of exaggerated gestures,” she explains. “Imaginary spoon to mouth: Are you hungry? Finger pointed at crotch: Need to go to the bathroom? Mother’s head cupped in hands: Why didn’t I look at that Web site more carefully?”

When father and son decide to camp out in the family’s driveway, Gideon declines to join them, but as she loads up their provisions — “hot dogs, Gummi Worms and chocolate soy milk” — she finds a map left behind by the van’s previous owner, a young kayaker whose wilderness adventures led to his death. “His zest for life (or more to the point, my lack of zest) is startling to me. Is it possible I am the one having the midlife crisis?” Gideon muses.

I used to be less afraid. In the early years of our marriage, my husband and I climbed mountains, ran Class 3 rapids in a rickety canoe and camped along the way. On rainy nights we slept in a tent, and on starry nights we slept outside. We were in our twenties; our needs were simple. We lived dangerously, which is to say we were up for anything. We didn’t think about what things cost. We thought only about the cost of not doing things. Which is exactly why — I suddenly understand — my husband has bought the van for us.

The author has a knack for capturing moments like these, in which we confront the gap between who we would like to be and who we are. And in allowing us to laugh at our shortcomings, she helps us come to terms with them. Overwhelmed by the pure-heartedness of her little boy, who calmly stands up for the spirit of Halloween when she herself childishly demands her favorite candy, she writes, “There comes a time in every mother’s life when it becomes very clear that your child is a much better person than you are.” As the chocolate-hoarding mother of two children who eagerly share their Halloween candy, I can relate.

Gideon also works in a little cultural criticism as she confesses her shortcomings. She sounds both combative and contrite as she admits that the foodie cult that has engulfed her particular demographic has left her behind, clutching her supermarket rice pudding “Some people can recall in detail the wild nettle frittata they ate for dinner one Indian summer night in 1972. I don’t understand these people. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to be one of them, but I just don’t see it happening this late in my life. Food is just not that important to me.” Surely, if Gideon can make peace with her plebeian tastes and forgive herself for forgetting that Julia Child, a family friend of her husband’s, once dined at her home, I can forgive myself for the humbleness of my own cooking and for my own “food-related amnesia,” as Gideon terms it. (My extended tuna casserole phase, for instance — or that time my boss passed along a coveted lunch invitation to the four-star New York restaurant Per Se and all I could remember about the meal, when he asked about it afterward, was that I had enjoyed the bread.)

Ultimately, Gideon finds her way through life’s slippery stretches to a stable spot, tucked happily between her husband and son. And though her personal journey does not take her all that far, the pleasure we take in finding a kindred spirit willing to voice our own shameful thoughts is immeasurable. Here, for instance, is her adroit take on vanity and age:

I never thought it would happen to me. When you’re fifteen and twenty and twenty-five and thirty-five and you look younger than you are, you think this will always be the case. You’ll never look your age. Until one day you do. But you don’t quite get it. You keep forgetting. You keep walking around thinking you’re passing for thirty until one day it hits you that unless you put a great deal of effort into it, unless you wear lipstick and mascara and exercise seven days a week, you are for all intents and purposes invisible. People look past you and over and around you and above you, except the women your age, who are staring right at you, taking in your shoes and your hair and your face and your clothes and wondering, God, I hope I don’t look as bad as she does…

See? It’s not just you. Or me.