In Stone’s debut novel, a middle-aged woman reflects on her lifelong struggles toward self-esteem, sexual openness, and healthy relationships.
As Celia Browne, 55, is speaking with Harold, her new lover (a week ago, her therapist), she unwinds a chain of recollection so he can “know how I learned not to be the eternal patient and why everything became sex in my mind.” Celia grows up in Rochester, New York, in a middle-class Jewish family that includes three live-in spinster aunts who contribute to the buttoned-up, sexually repressive atmosphere of the time. Her aunts criticize Celia mercilessly (especially her weight). Her cousins also tease and bully her, and Celia’s parents don’t defend her. Sex is taboo, as is talking about abuse, sexual or otherwise. Celia attends college, meets her first great love, and moves to California where she becomes a children’s librarian. Later, she switches to a degree in social work. As the sexual revolution progresses, Celia sees many therapists, marries and has children, takes a lover, and files for divorce. She comes to realize that “love is so much more than physical satisfaction.” Her honesty and openness, as well as the genuine compassion she shows as a social worker, make her relatable. But other qualities are off-putting: she holds long grudges and is obsessed with looks, weight, and status. Her insights are mostly couched in therapeutic clichés; for example, “She was too lacking in self-worth to believe she was that loveable to anyone.” Sexual repression in the 1950s is a well-explored topic, and the novel adds nothing new. Also problematic is the story’s timeline, which is confused. For example, in 1965, Celia is 26 years old, which would make 1939 her birth year. But in 2005, she’s 55, so she must have been born in 1950. These are not easily reconcilable discrepancies, and they pervade the novel.
Impossible chronology adds the wrong kind of puzzlement to an otherwise overfamiliar plot.