You may not know her name, but you have probably heard of Jane Juska, the 66-year-old retired teacher from California who placed the following ad in the personals column of The New York Review of Books:
Before I turn 67 - next March - I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me.
This book is her report. It is one surprise after another.
The sex, for one. (I start there only because you expect me to, because you want me to.) Yes, it is explicit. Jane Juska's no prude. She's got a powerful libido and a vocabulary to match. To read her is to think --- if you're a man --- that she talks like a guy. If you're female, I suspect you'll come to another conclusion: This is how women talk with one another when there are no men around.
But the sex is the least of the surprises. Reading her ad, I assumed that Jane Juska is supremely confident --- one of those women who's like a film director in bed. A taker, not a giver. The facts are otherwise. Jane is long divorced. Her son has chosen to live on the streets of Berkeley. She hasn't had a date in three decades. (Which isn't surprising --- for many of those years, this 5'3" woman weighed more than 200 pounds.) Her social life, such as it is, occurs at San Quentin Prison, where she teaches writing to hard-core inmates.
But now, in a year, she has lost 100 pounds and can pound out the cardio in the front row of her aerobics class. She has had a productive psychoanalysis. She's read a ton and remembers it all, but isn't the least bit bookish --- she sounds tart and witty and fun.
And, also, tragic. Tucked in this book is Jane's life story, which is one personal disaster after another. Her mother worries that she'll never marry; her father, a doctor, is chilly even by the standards of his profession. Jane was, she belatedly realizes, abused by a handyman, whose secrets she has kept. Her first lovers were damaged and insensitive; she convinced herself to love the man who became her husband when she learned she was pregnant.
So although she insists she's looking for a sexual hookup, you can't read this book without seeing how much more she wants --- and why the immensity of her real desire is more than she can acknowledge. Because she wants what women half her age want: She wants it all. A sexy man, to be sure. But also a caring one. A whole man. A man to love.
Now, a man --- even a lout --- can get a date on his deathbed. For a single woman, so my friends say, it takes a career effort to find a man worth taking your clothes off for. And so it is for Jane. Her lovers are old, and their emotional resources are generally smaller than their fantasies; they don't love Jane, and they bluntly tell her so.
And still she persists. She's seen the shadow --- she knows death is out there, she feels her body decay even as she exercises to stay in shape. So although she weeps often, she plunges ahead.
Jane is spirited and spunky and, despite her bruisings, ever hopeful of a happy ending. And so will you. That is, you'll stop flipping pages looking for the Good Stuff --- "What? He told you to put your breasts on the table, and you did?"--- and, with Jane, you'll start looking for a man who knows what to do with her.
Does she find one? I'm not spoiling the ending. But I'll give you this much: Come for the sex, stay for the triumph --- the triumphant woman, that is.
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