Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman is a modern Everywoman’s tale. It is the funny, heartfelt, and sad—but definitely not tragic—story about love and how it touched forty-seven-year-old Rose Lloyd. As a college student, Rose fell in love with a man. His name was Hal and he loved her but also wanted to roam the world. Then she met Nathan, who wanted to marry her and raise a family. Rose loved Nathan, too, although for different reasons. She made a decision.
One wedding, two children, and twenty-five years later, Rose is a book editor for a weekly London paper where husband Nathan also works as the deputy editor. Rose is at peace in her life, happy and secure in the knowledge that she has successfully balanced the often conflicting demands of home and career. But when Nathan announces that he is leaving her for another woman, the stability she has always relied upon is unexpectedly gone.
Nathan laments, “I feel imprisoned by the walls I’ve built around me,” just before he tells Rose that he’s leaving her for Rose’s own trusted twenty-nine-year-old assistant, Minty. Young, attractive, and incredibly ambitious, Minty has designs on more than Rose’s husband. The same day that she loses her husband, Rose discovers that she is going to be replaced on the job by none other than Minty, who promises to bring a younger look and tone to the book section.
Out of a job, a marriage, and soon to be ousted from the cozy home and garden she’s lavished with care, Rose is suddenly alone with too much time on her hands. While her friends and children rally around her, Rose is dealt a blow by her mother, who implies that it was Rose’s selfish decision to work outside of the home that destroyed her marriage. Rose sinks into despondency, begins to drink a little too much, and wonders if her mother is right. But when in the midst of her mourning, her beloved cat, Parsley, dies, Rose realizes, “I had had enough. I wanted my grief dead.” She decides to live—and that’s when the fun really begins.
With the complacency and safety of her married life and career gone, Rose remembers how a long-ago trip to Rome showed her that most people lived, not in the radiant semitransparent envelope that writers described but in a plain brown one with which they had to make do but it was better than nothing: “I was sixteen…and in love for the first time—with being there, out of England. Rome was noisy, filled with smells—coffee, exhaust, sweat, hot buildings—and its flux of life, noise and sensation flowed through me, intensely, luxuriously felt.” As Elizabeth Buchan weaves the narrative back and forth between Rose’s youth and middle age, we see Rose once again reach out for the meaning in life and to courageously explore the life-altering decision she made long ago. What she discovers is sweet revenge, indeed: the promise of better days ahead, no matter what age we are.
Elizabeth Buchan is the author of several highly acclaimed books of fiction and non-fiction. She lives in London with her husband and two children.
You weave the narrative beautifully between the joys and sorrows of her time with Hal and her marriage to Nathan. Why did you choose to frame the story this way?
One of the points I wanted to explore was about timing. When we make our choices—to marry, to have children, to change jobs, etc….has a direct bearing on how successful or not our lives will be. Rose knew she wanted children and, however intense and addictive her feelings for Hal, it was not likely to happen with Hal, who wanted different things. Reflecting on her history helps Rose to clarify the muddle and anguish left by the breakdown of her marriage, and also to suggest these ideas to the reader. Amplifying the same point, Nathan chooses to step back out of one cycle that is coming to an end, only to find he is back in the same place, and is now faced at fifty-something with a reduced income, a wife, and twins. More important, perhaps, he has deprived himself of a peace and freedom that he might have expected after the hurly-burly of raising one family.
Ianthe has always been completely unsupportive of Rose. To what degree do you think this influenced Rose in the choices she made?
Again, one of the points I thought would be interesting to write about was the connections and the differences among three generations of women: Ianthe, Rose, and Poppy. Ianthe is very much a woman from an older generation. She does support her daughter, but she also holds different views about forgiveness and about the traditional role of women and how they should conduct their lives. She would consider it part of her support, and duty, to speak her mind. To a certain extent, we all shrug off the nostrums and mind-set of the older generation. If Rose does just that with Ianthe, what is Poppy doing with Rose?
When Rose is told about the affair, she questions Nathan: “…is it because as we grow older, we grow less confident…and we need to reestablish ourselves all over again?” Do you feel this is the reason why most marriages fall apart?
Of course, becoming middle aged is not all plain sailing—there are disappointments and bitter griefs. Women mourn their changing looks and some feel that they have become invisible. Life is more complicated, less straightforward, and less easy to pin down than it appeared to be in the twenties and thirties. As a result, both sexes may, at times, feel a little daunted, which is what Rose is questioning. Here is where the courage and resilience of middle age can be so well deployed. It is probably true to say that in any long-term relationship a fault line will appear at some point as the individuals are bound to change, develop, and reorientate themselves. If the partnership is functioning, this will add richness and exhilaration. But if it is not, and the fracture is not dealt with and discussed, undoubtedly it must contribute to the breakdown of a relationship.
Mazarine, upon hearing the news that Nathan has left Rose, blithely comments to Rose, referring to the affair as a phase that will ultimately end, “Be practical and wise, it’s our role in a crazy world.” Could you elaborate on that statement?
As a Frenchwoman, Mazarine is reflecting a culture where affairs are seen in a slightly different light. But she is also expressing a view on sexuality and sexual behaviour that she is considering within a larger context—a philosophy that comes from her worldly experience. She is urging Rose to view Nathan’s straying as a blip and not as a finality. What she in effect is saying: marriages are tougher than affairs. These things happen. Ride through it.
Some critics have said that Mazarine is so vivid that she deserves her own book. Who is your favorite “minor” character?
I have to confess to having a great fondness for Mazarine. I love her practicality and her elegant theories of life. But I also find Alice very intriguing—a young woman determined on her career who is thrown hard against a brick wall of inconvenient emotion. In her way, Alice is quite brave.
Did you write this story to help liberate middle-aged women from those husbands who wish to start new lives with younger women? What inspired the book’s amazing title?
I wrote the book because I was interested in the stage of life where it is possible to look both back and forward, and it is a very interesting place to be. Sooner or later, we all get there and the rewards are that patience, observation, and experience yield more subtle and textured pleasures than the ardency and impatience of our younger years. That is the theme. The plot is about the “happily ever after”: i.e., what can happen to us after we have settled down with our Prince Charming and it goes wrong—a situation which offers plenty of drama for the novelist. The title just arrived in my head. Bang. It stems from the Spanish proverb. “Living well is the best revenge.”
The setting and character of your novels are very British yet the book has become a New York Times bestseller. Has it surprised you how much American audiences have embraced Revenge?
The response in the US has been fantastic and generous and I confess to being just a little surprised, but hugely delighted. Then again, the breakdown of a marriage is something that happens in many western cultures—thus, in that sense, it is a universal predicament. I also feel that the slightly older woman had been ignored lately in fiction. Her voice should be heard, too!
Are you working on anything now?
The Good Wife (UK title), which takes a look at marriage. What is it? How does it work? Why does it last? Fanny has been married for twenty years to a politician, a position that requires her to look good but remain silent in public. But she is no fool and, after her daughter leaves home, she begins to question her choices…and her future.