Inspiring midlife stories don't quite tell the tale





Cathleen Rountree.

Harper San Francisco.

214 pages. $22.

With some exceptions, certainly in range and emphasis, there is a surprising uniformity in the attitudes of the 18 mostly American women of between 50 and 60 who give their views in "On Women Turning 50."

There is a continued determination to assert themselves, but with a quiet firmness in their stances, along with self-deprecating humor. There is confidence in the words of these women, who are teachers, lawyers, doctors, writers, actresses, activists. They have proved themselves, survived personal and professional crises, and it shows. They feel liberated by menopause; giving up vanity gets mixed reviews.

Interviewer and photographer Cathleen Rountree, in her introductory description of a woman who felt so isolated and unneeded that she killed herself at 53, suggests that her subjects are not necessarily the rule. The trick, she says, "to having a productive and satisfying life after 50 is to have "meaningful work or a creative outlet . . . a significant relationship or nurturing women friends . . . a spiritual connection to nature or an inner life."

As Lorraine Hale, who runs Hale House for children in Harlem, puts it: "It's important to grow with [age], make peace with it, continue to do your life's work, and be proud you have lived this long and learned so much."

With the exception of jewelry maker and entrepreneur Tabra Tunoa, who talks honestly (and sadly) about her two breast-implant operations and her lifetime of disastrous relationships with men, the women have come to a healthy detente with the men in their lives -- many after several tries.

Only two of the 16 who had married were with their original husbands. Many have successful second or third marriages, but none feels the need for a man that she felt earlier. Gloria Steinem describes the post-menopausal stage: "It's wonderful. It doesn't mean you don't enjoy having sex when it happens, just that you don't think about it when it doesn't."

Almost in one voice, these women embrace the 50s and explain, sometimes wryly, what it means to them. Says filmmaker Allie Light: "Something happens in the fifties; you begin to see that your dreams might not materialize." Novelist Isabel Allende observes that one of the good things about being 50 is that you're not so easily scared. Psychiatrist Jean Shinoda Baker says "there is increased authenticity and autonomy with turning 50."

But despite the often inspiring remarks of these women, it seemed that something was being held back. Two talk about scrapes with breast cancer, another about a debilitating long-term virus, and they babble about their many divorces. Yet every one, whether she had one child or 11 (yes, labor organizer Dolores Huerta has 11!), says her children are "fabulous." Only one articulates genuine concerns about money.

The book's interview format allows the reader to be misled by the selected, self-edited openness of the subjects. We're invited to look at a person's life, but the crucial details that straight biographical portraits would have presented are missing. While wondering how the children of dancer Ruth Zaporah -- "we experimented with all the same things at the same time: sex and

drugs" -- turned out, I felt a little cheated.

Ms. Egerton is a writer living in Baltimore.

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