The Hippo


May 28, 2020








No One Tells You This, by Glynnis Macnicol
(Simon & Schuster, 293 pages)


When it comes to living alone, Glynnis Macnicol has plenty of company. Four in 10 Americans live alone — that is, without a romantic partner or spouse. Even among the youngest adults, that number is climbing; more than 60 percent of people under 35 live alone, Pew Research Center reported last year.
So Macnicol’s new memoir about her 41st year of life, unmarried and childless, ought to resonate with a lot of people. It’s an often poignant, mostly cheerful account that begins with her checking into a motel in Queens, New York, to be near the ocean on her 40th birthday: “Was I really going to go home? Sad, sad Glynnis retreating to her studio apartment, defeated by her age. This could not be the story of my birthday.”
Symbolically, it’s perfect: unmarried women of any age used to be seen as spinsters; now they ride the Freedom Express, able to duck out of their real lives on a moment’s notice to snag a $70 deal near the beach.
Macnicol muses about her milestone birthday while riding the subway, comically envisioning the headlines that would be published if she were to meet with tragedy: “FOREVER YOUNG: On the eve of her 40th birthday, woman pushed into oncoming train by madman.” And, “at least she didn’t have any children.” 
Her wry observations about being a single, childless woman are refreshingly delivered without a shred of self-pity, Macnicol having decided early on that she didn’t want the life of her mother, who’d earned two master’s degrees but became a stay-at-home mother who never traveled anywhere by herself.
But the flag that Macnicol bravely plants in her opening pages seems less a call to solidarity as her story unfolds, and more of a haughty marker of a small sovereign nation comprised of affluent, educated, well-connected women of New York City.
Hers is not the story of everywoman, but of a woman whose most recent relationship was with an unnamed celebrity with whom she communicates primarily by text. 
She has an enviable web of friendships with other city dwellers who find her plum apartments and freelance assignments that allow her to travel to exotic locations for free.  
And even as she writes movingly about her mother’s deterioration from Parkinson’s disease and a friend whose baby is born dead, there is a once-removed aspect about her life. She experiences loss on the periphery of others’ lives; hers is a second-hand suffering that occasionally pops up as she travels hither and yon in second-hand fur coats, seeing everything through the glittery hard shell of a veteran New Yorker.
At one point, while visiting a dude ranch in Wyoming, part of a cross-country trip with a friend, Macnicol rides a horse to the top of a hill and is mesmerized by the scenery. When she tries to explain what she is feeling to her guide, she comes up with this: “It feels like the first time I came up from the subway in New York.”
Moreover, while she has no qualms sleeping with a much younger man, she is quick to diss a 59-year-old suitor, who lied about his age on Tinder. 
Ironically, Macnicol is not a native New Yorker but a Canadian who succumbed to the city’s allure. And to be fair, by the memoir’s end she becomes less Carrie Bradshaw, more Laura Ingalls Wilder (one of her idols, along with Princess Leia), even returning to the dude ranch — again, on whim — for a month to write a book and sleep with a cowboy. 
But again, her experiences have an otherworldliness to them, fly-fishing in the Bighorn Mountains even as the unnamed celebrity continues to ping her. It is, indeed, wonderful to have the freedom and resources to live as Macnicol lives, to be both gorgeous and a “great conversationalist” as the Vonnegut-loving cowboy tells her, and to have a best friend who provides her with the greatest apartment in New York City. 
But there is a limited audience that can relate, the success of Sex and the City notwithstanding. Macnicol has far less sex and fewer shoes than that crew. The sex she does have seems antiquated, a leftover from the free-lovin’ ’60s, even though she presents it as proof that a mature, accomplished woman can enjoy sex for sex’s sake, without the weepy attachment of the desperate. 
“Slow down,” she tells her 28-year-old cowboy. “Here’s what I want you to do.” The next day they part as friends, and she realizes later she never got his last name. She finds this all exhilarating.
At times this seems less reality, more law-of-attraction affirmation. And despite the promise of the title No One Tells You This, it’s never clear what Macnicol is telling us. Best I can figure, it’s “yes, you can be single and childless and happy, so long as you have an apartment so great that all your married-mom friends will tell you they’re jealous of your life.”
That said, she keeps us reading, even when the narrative drifts dangerously into the realm of a tedious journal. She’s going to tell us something — she promised! Any page now! Great conversationalist though she is, Macnicol ultimately fails to deliver except for those already conversant with her glamorous, citified life. 
And she never tells us what the rest of us really want to know — who, exactly, is the unnamed celebrity and where we, too, can find a $70 motel room close to Manhattan. B-  
—Jennifer Graham 

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