When I was about to turn forty I called my Dad and asked him what I could expect from my forties. He said, reassuringly, your forties will be great, you won't notice any decline until you reach 50. The males in my family tend to stay in pretty good shape. We are active, athletic, and actually enjoy using our muscles to move things. We do though occasionally check out early. My grandfather died from a massive heart attack at the age of 45 while carrying two pails of milk from the barn to the milk house. 45 is an age of concern for my family. We tend to buy more life insurance, hug our family more, and monitor our blood pressure a little more closely. I'm 45 this year and this nail biting age might be part of why I enjoyed this book so much.
Ian or Sean, how you refer to him depends on at what point in his life you knew him, is suffering from a midlife crises that begins sometime in his late 30s when he hooks up with a 17 year old girl. He debauches her during a cross country (Australia) trip and even though they part he insists that they make plans to reunite once he turns 40 for a trip to Spain. He finds her youth stimulating, but also frustrating.
"He remembered once chiding her for what he saw as her negativity and conversational passivity. He'd shouted at her. But then he'd read Henry James' Watch and Ward
- a novel about a thirty-year-old man who adopts a ten-year-old girl to raise as his wife. The narrator finds the adolescent girl 'defiantly torpid' but then realizes that her listless quietude covered a great deal of observation and that growing may be a soundless process."
Ian/Sean wanders from woman to woman never really connecting with any of them mainly because he can not connect with himself. He drinks too much and for a time even has to quit drinking for six months to clear up some liver malfunctions. He at one point forgets and drinks at a party and has to start his six months over again. Drinking was such a part of his life, as normal as breathing, that I really could see him in a relaxed situation forgetting not to drink.
It's not unusual to feel lost as we age. It seems easier to accomplish things when we are younger. We are not as encumbered with our own history of failures when we are younger. We don't fear losing near as much as we do as we get older. Ian/Sean finds himself trying to remember that he has lived.
"You read your CV with a comfortable curiosity to find out 'what you really are.' You run through your credentials and life experiences to remind yourself that you have 'fully lived'. You find yourself sitting in a bar reading your passport reminding yourself of the world you've seen, about which you seem to recall so little."
He tries to reconnect with his young friend after turning 40. He finds that her circumstances has changed drastically since he last knew her. She is unwilling to accompany him on the fantasy Spanish trip. He insists on seeing her again, but feels infantile in her presence. Life has hardened her and the dynamic between them has shifted.
Ian/Sean ends up pursuing the history of his Great Grandmother who made the family fortune whoring (that gem of information was never discussed at the family dinner table). He loses his job, which given the aimless approach he had for life, I can only imagine he was not seen as a ball of fire at the office. He ends up living in the old hotel from which his great grandmother had plied her trade and starts living exclusively off the endowment that she left her descendants.
This book is very witty and the dialogue and observations are sharp and biting. I had to limit the number of quotes I shared in this review because I didn't want the trailer to feel like the movie.
Ian/Sean is not a sympathetic character. I do not embrace his pain, but I do understand his bafflement with the universe. He never does figure out what it really means to turn forty, but he does start to understand that answers will remain elusive. "You are unable to determine whether you have led the richest of lives or the most miserable and deformed of lives." At 40 maybe that isn't the best time to make that determination for most of us a lot more water will pass under the bridge.
I had someone say to me that Frank Moorhouse may be Australia's most important writer. Although I am not ready to agree with that statement yet,I will certainly be reading more of his work and seeing if I can one day say I agree.