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Life's full participant

Jane Juska, single as she approached 70, opened herself to romance. That labor of love has become the memoir 'A Round-Heeled Woman.'

June 10, 2003|Suzanne Mantell | Special to The Times

BERKELEY — Growing old has a way of sneaking up on people, of leaving them behind as vital participants in life's passages. But Jane Juska, an astute observer of life's changes, wasn't going to let that happen to her.

Juska, a former high school English teacher, felt tripped up by the aging process. Though retired, her juices were still flowing and, more important, she felt like a young person trapped in an aged body. "I didn't want to grow old never sleeping with a man again," she confides, admitting at the same time that she hadn't seen a naked male body in more than 10 years.

Unfazed by practical considerations, Juska did what any ripe and ready person might do: She took out a personals ad declaring her availability. She chose as her venue the well-regarded New York Review of Books. She fielded responses, and she met men.

Her rousing memoir recounting her experiences, "A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance," is stirring up interest in every nook and cranny where boomers are quietly aging. And it looks as though Juska may end up a heroine not just to herself but to myriad older women -- and men -- who suppress desire in the name of propriety and accept society's view that growing older is if not ugly then unseemly and best done out of the public view.

Despite her systematic search for partners, and her public airing of same, first-time author Juska professes no interest in being a spokeswoman for senior sex or its pleasures. If you seek her advice, she deflects it. "I think you should ask someone else," she tells an older woman who has asked whether she should sleep with a man she has known for only a week. "I'm alone at home watching 'Law and Order.' "

A 32-year-old writer from the online journal Salon asks on behalf of her mother, a linguistics professor, whether a personals ad is a good idea. "The NYRB worked for me," she replies. Indeed, she got 63 responses to her posting.

Juska turned 70 in March. She didn't set out to flaunt her bold adventures in print, though she shows real talent in describing her foray into the world of first dates and first kisses and caresses that go all the way. The book is unabashed in its honesty, forthright about her experiences, probing, funny and sad. It doesn't take many pages to get the reader rooting for her, hoping she finds someone who will appreciate her.

Young writers plow this territory, but who dares do it when they are past their prime, when intimations of mortality are all about and, worse, "what once was firm is loose, what once went up goes down"?

Editor Susanna Porter, who bought the book for Random House's Villard imprint, says Juska's first draft had terribly unflattering physical descriptions, which got softened in the editing process. "Jane looks like a woman who looks her age but she is really good-looking," Porter says. "I thought the descriptions were too brutal. It was better to leave it to the reader's imagination."

Assistance from Trollope

Why did Juska want to sleep around? And why did she go public in "A Round-Heeled Woman"? Juska, who married and divorced early in life and raised a son on her own, discovered, after retiring from 33 years of high school teaching, that she no longer felt touched by the world, was no longer part of its sexual dynamics, and she missed it.

"Retirement is a terribly serious step for anybody," she says. "There's high drama in high school. It takes all your energy and passion and then asks for more. So when that's over, it's like a death. So what are you going to do?"

Spurred on by the Eric Rohmer film "Autumn Tale," in which a mature woman advertises for a man for her friend, Juska concocted an ad ("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"), placed it in a publication noted for its relentless intellectualism and set in motion a saga that, from all outward signs, has only just begun.

Just a few weeks after publication, the book is in its fourth printing. At one point, it jumped to No. 15 in the Amazon sales ranking. There's interest in doing a stage adaptation, and a couple of TV producers are sniffing around the rights.

"There's a lot of excitement out there in Hollywood," says Juska's literary agent, Virginia Barber, at the William Morris Agency in New York, where a young assistant found the book in the slush pile, that vast, never-ending influx of unsolicited book submissions. "We don't yet have the offer we want." A big fan of the author, Barber says, "No one opened the door for her. She did it with cleverness and wit."

Of the men Juska met, she is still in active relationships with at least three, including half-her-age Graham, an "old soul in a young body" who offered her great sex and wonderful companionship.

At Cody's Bookstore in Berkeley, where Juska did a reading and signed books, a woman whispered to her, "Do you still see Graham?"

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