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BOOK REVIEW / MEMOIRS : Looking Back at a Life Half Spent : MID-LIFE: Notes From the Halfway Mark by Elizabeth Kaye , Addison Wesley, $18, 192 pages

May 04, 1995|KAREN STABINER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Elizabeth Kaye is halfway there: there being the place we're all headed and don't want to reach. Now somewhere around 50, her own mortality has been creeping up on her, and this book, this extended essay, is her effort to make sense of the inexorable.

To say that she takes us through the stages of midlife would be to make this sound too much like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who categorized our feelings when confronted with death. Kaye works more in watercolors than file folders. Her reminiscences overlap, and return, and only by stepping back, then returning to the trail does she make progress toward understanding.

At the outset she is as despairing as any self-respecting woman who has grown up in a culture that idolizes youth can be. She's about to become invisible. More important, she's having to face the fact that all the lovely dreams she had as a child and young woman are going to turn out to be just that--dreams. Life, as Mr. Lennon so succinctly put it, is what happens while you're making other plans. Kaye would add: and while other plans are being foisted upon you. She has run smack into the realization that yearning, desire, even talent and ambition, aren't always enough to get you what you want.

To quote another rocker from her generation, Mr. Jagger liked to sing, "You can't always get what you want / But if you try, sometimes you just might find / You get what you need." Midlife, in Kaye's experience, seems to be greatly about accepting that distinction--making peace with it, learning to appreciate what you do get instead of mourning what you missed.

So she sifts through her personal inventory--relationships gone bad, work projects unrealized, a distant dad, a dear grandmother whose painful, slow demise leaves Kaye somehow braver for having stood with her until the end. She comes out the other side the way we would all like to be, accepting but still full of energy, capable, despite history, of falling in love again (those lurid statistics of a few years ago be damned; a woman over 40 has found a man).

Kaye's prose has a hypnotic quality, almost as though she had recalled it in a trance, which is both her strong suit and the source of small disappointments. One of the most poignant passages concerns her decision, at 37, to have an abortion, even though she realizes this may be her last chance to have a child. It is testimony to the power of her writing that the reader wants to cry out--not to make her change her mind; just to get her to talk about it a bit more. The thing about a self-revelatory endeavor like this memoir is that it demands sacrifice from the writer. Too often, it seems that Kaye takes refuge behind her clean, controlled writing.

Nobody's asking her to break down in print in front of strangers. But in the case of her decision not to have a child, and in a few other places, it would have been nice to know a little more of what she was thinking, of how it felt to be where she was.

This is not the definitive text on midlife; we can expect that among the numerous titles that will surely appear as baby boomers hit the mark. But it is a gentle and insightful opener, a book readers may find themselves turning back to again and again as they make their own way through.

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