Writing through crisis

The Baltimore Sun

Toby Devens knows firsthand that being over 50 doesn't make a woman over the hill. The Clarksville resident is a successful author, a widow twice over, and mother to an adult daughter.

The characters in Devens' first novel, My Favorite Midlife Crisis (Yet), could be her own circle of friends. They are three women juggling love lives, aging parents, relationships with grown children, and their own careers.

Devens said an "ability to find humor, except in the most difficult circumstances, is probably what buoys up most women." And humor is how her characters cope with their complicated lives.

Devens will discuss My Favorite Midlife Crisis (Yet) today at 7 p.m. at the Howard County Central Library. The talk is part of an ongoing "Meet the Author" series. Attendees can buy Devens' book and have it signed.

When her first husband died after struggling with Crohn's disease, Devens wrote and published a work of nonfiction about her experience. Mercy Lord, My Husband's in the Kitchen was published in 1980.

My Favorite Midlife Crisis (Yet) was also inspired by tragedy. When Devens' second husband died of cancer, "I was just about 50 and alone again and I started feeling a little bit sorry for myself," she said.

She observed "a lot of divorced women who never expected to be divorced ... and some widows." In addition to being newly single, these women were raising teenage children and caring for aging parents.

Devens said she "wanted to write a testimony to these women because they were living their lives with a lot of humor, grace and strength."

Devens lost her public relations job a few months before she planned to retire. She decided to turn the notes and ideas she had collected into a novel. My Favorite Midlife Crisis (Yet) came out in September 2006.

Early versions of the novel went to Devens' critique group for review. Columbia author Chassie West is a member of the group and has known Devens since the 1970s. "It was a good book to begin with, and it was a terrific book by the time she finished," West said. "It was just so heartening to watch this book come to life."

The novel centers around three women in their 50s. Fleur has never been married. Kat -- a Columbia fiber artist -- is widowed. The protagonist, Gwyneth Berke, is a divorced physician caring for her ailing father. The story takes place in Baltimore, Columbia and Washington.

The novel's trio of women is loosely based on women Devens knows. Like the character Fleur, one of Devens' over 50 friends turned finding a husband into a business project, keeping files on all the men she dated. To create Kat, Devens learned how to weave from a friend who is a fiber artist.

West said that Gwyneth, Fleur and Kat "were all characters to whom I could relate on one level or another. ... They were all fully fleshed out. They were all different. [The story] was just another example of how different personalities can mesh and support one another."

The book may be targeted at women over 40, but Devens said she has a broad spectrum of readers. "They love the book and it's not just women of that age," she said. "...I've had men write me fan letters."

At the Central Library, Devens will talk about the themes of her novel -- coping with aging parents and "what's it like to be dating again in your 40s and 50s. If you're suddenly back in the dating pool ... it is difficult, but it's not impossible," she said.

Elaine Johnson, assistant manager of the central branch, is sponsoring Devens' talk.

"There's lots of humor, but there's lots of sorrow in the book, too," she said. "... It wasn't just a fluff-fluff book. It really was a substantial book."

The characters are what made the book a good read for Johnson. She said the three friends' "interaction was what really made the book work." The women are "people who are over 50 who are not down in the dumps. They're full of life," she said. "They have a sense of humor. ... It was really just an intelligent book."

She warned readers My Favorite Midlife Crisis (Yet) is "not for the faint-hearted" because it talks about face-lifts and sex after 50. "But if you like a well-written book about women who are close friends, who manage to hold it all together, then this is the book for you," Johnson said.

What Devens wants readers to take from her novel is "finding passion in your life. And I'm not just talking about sexual, but a passion to live. People think if you're beyond 50, you're heading down the slope and it's not true anymore," she said. "This ain't your grandma's 50."

The Central Library is located at 10375 Little Patuxent Parkway. Information: 410-313-7800.

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