There’s a delicious moment in Sandra Tsing Loh’s new menopausal memoir when she sinks into a hot bath to read Anna Quindlen’s menopausal memoir Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. For an instant, I believe that two of my favorite nonfiction writers are going to melt together into a smart, steamy, sisterhoody, say-what-we’re-all-thinking sort of soup.
But the soak only made Loh — divorced, sleepless, bloated, and at the frayed, thready end of her tightly wound rope — feel like “a hideous monster failure” compared to the “warm, sensible” and alcohol-abstaining Quindlen, who is still married to her high school sweetheart.
And what Loh wrote next was even better than sassy-scribe stew: “Anna Quindlen is a judgmental beeyotch masquerading as a nice person, and I hate her. I realize this puts me in the can’t-win position of attacking a clearly very nice and successful person … But if only we could see women crash around a bit more, particularly in middle age.”
Plenty of such crashing can be seen in Loh’s new book, The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones, a startlingly, refreshingly honest account of life as a modern woman being dragged — writhing and wailing — out of her forties. A writer and radio commentator who is coming to UCSB’s Campbell Hall in May, Loh describes her imperfect relationships with her lover, ailing father, adolescent daughters, and irritating therapist and her failure to cope gracefully with the weight gain, hot flashes, forgetfulness, and panic attacks of perimenopause.
She wrote the book after herself searching for a book to shed light on her mid-life mania. “When you read through the first 10 books on menopause,” she told me in an interview last week, “it’s all medical stuff: no alcohol, no caffeine, no sugar, drink more water, eat more kale, take more walks. And there’s something to that, but it’s like a Band-Aid when your limb has been hacked off. When I started talking to women who had gone through it, they were saying, ‘It’s a really crazy time, and it will get better, but do whatever you have to do to get through it. If you need to eat chocolate or drink or smoke — as long as you don’t endanger your children — just do it.’”
She told me that one friend gained 25 pounds during menopause and swore she’d never have survived “the change” — and the death of her mother — if she hadn’t packed on those pounds. “She said, ‘Listen, fat stores estrogen, I feel much calmer, and that’s it. I just gained it, and I’m fine.’” Together, Loh and I burst out laughing at this statement as though it’s the most absurd and deliriously fantastic thing anyone has ever said. And it very well might be.
“As soon as you drop the mask of your perfect marriage or clean car, everybody comes forward with these stories,” she said. “There are a lot of women riding around — and their stuff is coming unglued.”
But this isn’t Loh’s first ungluing. She faced a public backlash after the Atlantic Monthly published her 2009 essay in which she confessed to having an affair that led to a divorce — and (gasp!) called into question the very institution of marriage. “People were saying, ‘Man, I don’t want to see this wreckage on the pages of the Atlantic. Shut this woman up!’” she recalled.
I for one am glad she kept writing. And writhing. And wailing. And so, for the record, is she. “Once you get through the storm, it’s fantastic and unbelievable. I feel better!” she swears. “I’m having the best time, my life is the most full and interesting, and I expect it to get better and better.”
To be clear, though, it may be years before she takes to the tub with Anna Quindlen again.
Sandra Tsing Loh will share experiences from her book at a UCSB Arts & Lectures event on Thursday, May 8, 8 p.m., at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. For tickets, call 893-3535.