Despite being both beautiful and smart, former teen beauty Sasha’s love life is a shambles, and–even worse–she’s approaching 30 with rapid speed.
I usually don’t say blank is the new blank, but I’ve never been more glad that 30 is the new 20 than after reading this depressing book. When I was in my 20s, I was looking forward to 30, because I had a sense from the women around me that 30 meant a break from a lot of the angst and agita I was dealing with. And I was right. Not that being in my 30s doesn’t have its own challenges, but at least I’m not up with the screaming meemies at 3 a.m. wondering who I am and if I’ll ever be happy. I’ve learned to make happy happen for myself. And I’m pretty darn good at it.
Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen was written in 1969. On its publication in 1972, it became a seminal book in the feminist canon, joining others like Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife in naming the previously unspeakable dread faced by ordinary women in America. Women were finally starting to wake up to the fact that they’d been sold a bill of goods by consumerist America, and they were mad (and horny) as hell about it.
Shulman’s protagonist, Sasha, realized she was beautiful when her braces came off, and even as she reveled in the attentions from men she looked forward in anxiety towards the day when she would be 30 and old. She knows she has to cultivate something to live for after she’s no longer desirable by men and no longer takes pleasure from looking in the mirror. Thus begins the quest for sexual self-fulfillment that wrecks her mismatched marriage and sends her delving into her past to see if she can make sense of what she’s supposed to do with her life.
I had a lot of trouble mustering sympathy for Sasha, not just because of her selfishness and narcissism. Shulman has stacked the deck against her by making every man that she encounters a total dud in some major way. There’s no such thing, in Shulman’s universe, as a marriage of equals made for love. And that just hasn’t been my own experience or that of my married friends. There’s no romance, either, just animal sex that always has disastrous results, whether it’s venereal disease or unwanted pregnancy or emotional devastation. Shulman would’ve loved AIDS.
I found no hope in this book. When Sasha finally does turn 30, her life is the worst it’s been, and her fears are coming true: her beauty is fading. Shulman maroons her protagonist in a state of utter hopelessness. The author’s preface to the 25th anniversary edition suggests that Shulman would leave her there, even today. I think we all deserve better than that.