The remarkable thing about Jane Juska's "A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance" isn't that it was written by a woman who sought great sex -- or at least just lots of sex -- toward the end of her 60s. It's that anyone, of any age or either sex, would have had the guts to write it at all. "A Round-Heeled Woman" is explicit in some places and downright titillating in others -- in other words, yes, there is sex in it, and plenty of it. But very few contemporary writers who have written about sex as an overt subject are as open about simple wanting as Juska is. It's easy to write about sex -- everybody does it. What's harder is laying your sexual hopes and disappointments on the table, not to feed an audience's prurience or to make oneself look sexy or noble or pitiable, but simply to connect, to capture the subtle glimmer of some very intimate experiences in as straightforward a manner as possible.
Our deepest, most complicated feelings often demand plainness, and yet few writers ever deliver it. Juska is different. After retiring from teaching high-school English -- she had been divorced for years, had raised a son on her own and had long ago convinced herself she wasn't particularly interested in sex -- she realized she was yearning for something. And she wasn't a bit coy about identifying what it was. Juska, who was living very modestly in a tiny rented cottage in Berkeley, Calif., scraped together the $4.55-per-word fee charged by the New York Review of Books personals section and put together this robustly succinct 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."
Talk about cutting to the chase. The chapter in which Juska explains how she figured out how to word her ad to get the biggest, if you'll pardon the expression, bang for her buck, is a delight in itself. Should she mention the Trollope? Leaving it out would save a bundle. She scoffs at an ad that reads "SWF seeks that special idyll with a literate, caring ..." ("Nonsense," Juska writes indignantly. "That ad cost $154.70!"). It's no surprise, then, that Juska's ad is a kind of poetry unto itself, a marvel of economy. And it ought to be, seeing as Juska recognizes, with a great deal of compassion for everyone out there who ever seeks connection, that the erotic urge is necessary to life. "I liked my ad. The urge was there. I was open to all comers. And Trollope went in. What the hell, I didn't plan to spend this kind of money again."
Juska's ad launches her into an odyssey she wasn't quite prepared for. She does meet several men she likes, and she has sex with them. One of them steals her underwear; another one coaxes her into a cocoon of sexual intimacy only to ultimately back away, which breaks her heart. And one of them, the one with whom she seems to have the most comfortable sexual and intellectual rapport, is more than 30 years younger than she is -- which, to her surprise, causes dismay and disgust among some friends of hers, particularly her 30-ish niece, who sees something unnatural about the friendship. Apparently, it's all well and good for "old folks" to go out and have sex, provided they stick to their own kind. The bewilderment Juska feels about that attitude is palpable, and she might make you think twice about the rigid strictures we build for ourselves when, in reality, the possibilities life offers are endless and bountiful.
"A Round-Heeled Woman" is both a sexual and a sensual book. Juska is unapologetic about liking men's bodies: She freely admits to loving penises, and she's mad for men's legs, too. But Juska remembers that all sensual beings have to exist in the real world, too, and not just within the bubble of their own sexual thoughts and feelings. People have duties to their families, they have jobs, they have hobbies. So Juska includes carefully chosen details about her childhood and what she was like as a young woman, and there's a wonderful chapter in which she recounts her experiences teaching English to inmates of San Quentin Prison. Those interstitial chapters build a sturdy framework for the book, giving us a sense of what Juska is like as a person, a way of recognizing the way our private and our public selves blend to make us who we are.
"A Round-Heeled Woman" is filled with straightforward and often lovely writing. Sometimes Juska seems a little too taken with the wonders of the English language, as if she were -- well, an English teacher who's writing her first book. But as you read, you start to see that as a blessing and not a flaw. Juska is a real person first and a writer second, a valuable quality in any writer, especially when it comes to memoirs. Her book is flushed with good humor, and she's careful not to overdo her musings about her own insecurities. She gives us just enough so that we recognize the psychic risk she took in placing that ad, but not so much that we feel weighed down by her hang-ups.
Although she demurs when one of her new friends calls her an intellectual, she's clearly as turned-on by heated discussions about Chaucer and Bach (as well as, of course, Trollope) as she is by anything that goes on between the sheets. When her young companion asks her if her recent experiences have led her to any new conclusions about men, she responds, "'A great deal of pleasure has come my way, not just physical but intellectual, absolutely unexpected but as wonderful as any of the flesh, maybe more.' He does not look at all doubtful. He looks as if he is liking me, as if he finds me interesting. Even I am beginning to find me interesting."
Juska is interesting, but, like most truly interesting people, she doesn't really know it. And very often, she's just damn funny, as when she describes the photograph she receives from a prospective suitor:
"In the photograph, John stands in his kitchen, peering furtively over one shoulder, which appears to be somewhat higher than the other. His dark hair, the few strands that remain, falls greasily back over his head, revealing a brow that does not suggest a high intelligence or invite my confidence, let alone lust. He looks like someone in the witness protection program. Or Richard III."
As it turns out, the man in the photograph turns out to be much more handsome in real life, and Juska likes him very much, although their friendship is short-lived. "A Round-Heeled Woman" offers hope for anyone who fears that aging has to mean the end of sex, but in the end, I don't think it's really about hope at all. To get what you want out of life, at any age, you have to make demands of that life. Sometimes you have to be naked, physically, emotionally or both. And you also need to take chances, even when they cost $4.55 a word.
Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment. MORE FROM Stephanie Zacharek
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