A novel focuses on the choices and challenges of five 40-year-old women who formed friendships as motivated Dartmouth undergraduates.
The book’s main characters are affluent, highly intelligent, married women with children. Their stories are narrated in alternating chapters with the exception of Heather Hall, the “supernova” of the group and a pivot for the other four. Heather is the COO of a hot, new tech company. Wealthy and generous, she always hosts their annual girls’ weekends. As the story opens, she is preoccupied with her book launch, so she is hosting in absentia this year. Self-involved and oblivious to her friends’ problems, Heather relentlessly sends texts, tweets, and emails exuding manic positivity. The remaining four are Carmen Jones, Martha Adams West, Elizabeth Smith, and Sara Beck. Carmen was a brilliant student whose career plans were torpedoed by an unplanned pregnancy and resultant marriage. Her dreams for more children never materialized, and her life is unfulfilling. Elizabeth, an exacting “big firm attorney” with a 3-year-old son and a loving but distracted stay-at-home husband, desperately wants a second child. With four young kids and a full-time position as a lawyer, Sara is exhausted by the demands of her job and angry that she is responsible for all of the household management. Martha, a physician, is at home after having two children and getting pregnant with a third. Married to a successful doctor named Robert, she is conflicted about returning to work after her baby is born. As trying as their situations are at the start, the friends are in store for a lot more pain. Unfortunate, terrible, and tragic incidents occur, and all the women must reevaluate their situations and decisions.
Heather’s blockbuster book serves as a catalyst for the four when they realize that each represents one of the titular Four BIG Mistakes of Women Who Will Never Lead or Win. Mistake No. 1: Opting Out (Carmen); Mistake No. 2: Ramping Off (Martha); Mistake No. 3: Half-Assing It (Sara); and Mistake No. 4: Ignoring the Fertility Cliff (Elizabeth). The four are blindsided by Heather’s simplistic and cruel assessment of their lives. But they are at critical junctures, and some of Heather’s criticisms hit close to home. The complexities of the issues are often subsumed by Jamison’s prosaic analyses. For example, during a school conference for one of her sons, Martha is stung by the dean’s dismissal of her desire to return to practicing medicine. Deflated, Martha muses: “We truly can’t win. And shame is the weapon of choice. The dean would never have told Robert not to go to work.” For Sara, who must work full time as an attorney and indispensable parent, “the Fight was always about the same thing—who was doing more, especially more of the shit work.” Although the author does not contribute anything new to the dilemma of women’s roles and work-life balance, the format is engrossing and the stories unfold at a satisfying pace. The husbands are mainly contrivances who serve to highlight the intriguing issues of the five women. The resolutions and reconciliations are effectively explored and have an undercurrent of religious ardency. Heather eventually acknowledges that her four friends “are using their resilience, optimism, courage, and persistence to create lives that are perfect for them.”
A compelling and enjoyable ride with five women who supposedly have it all.