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A Round-Heeled Woman
Jane Juskas first book is a memoir that takes as its starting
point what happened when she placed an ad in The New York Review of Books seeking
to "have a lot of sex with a man I like." Unusual were both the direct approach
and the fact that she was 66. But her life experience with relationships and sexuality was
unusual in itself. She had a sexually repressed childhood with good-looking, talented
parents in Ohio. Hardly admitting to herself her sex drive in her 20s, it was
certainly there nonetheless. She was a single mother and dedicated teacher in her
30s and onwards, kicking off decades where she was completely off the scene, neither
involved in any kind of relationship nor dating nor even flirting--simply getting by.
These thirty years can be explained by massive self-image issues linked with weight and
sometimes drinking problems. She came to understand them better through the psychoanalysis
she embarked on after retiring from the public schools.
Surprised at her own courage in placing the ad, Juska was even more so at the 66 responses she received in successive thick manila envelopes of letters. She sorted them into yes, no and maybe piles, and began answering them. She chose her men according to how they wrote, relying on her visceral response to good writing to discern which could become passionate experiences.
There are no doubt many different flavors of sexual repression. It may well have been the typical mothers role to warn a teenager in the 1940s, attending college in the 1950s, to watch out for men ("Men have animal passions. It is the womans duty to subdue them."). Juska's mother discourages any signs of romance even in grade school ("Before you know it, youll want to wear lipstick"), mocks her because of her weight problem, all the while trying to get her to head down the straight and narrow. Juskas story is in part about finding a balance between fulfilling her mothers exigent demands and reacting against them.
Her lust also rings true. "I love mens asses, even the ones that arent perfect. I am aroused by the sight of Johns neck, of Bills forearm, of Sidneys voice, Roberts hands, Grahams legs." One of her lovers calls her "buoyant," a wonderful word for the quality with which she approaches life despite unending setbacks.
Teaching high school English is her passion. She is comfortable with its emotional challenges and her chapters on the mores of the contemporary high school classroom and on teaching prisoners at San Quentin in her retirement are emotionally involving and ring true.
What could be shocking to some readers is the number of men she ended up sleeping with. That wasnt necessarily the plan, but she didnt find true romance each candidate was permanently linked with someone else, or mortally ill, or not interested in love. And so she went through a process of exploration until she found someone she felt great about--much to her familys chagrin, a well-read and open-minded 33-year old working as a stockbroker in New York.
One angle of the writing can be a bit tiresome. Despite many decades in the San Francisco Bay area, she considers herself a small-town girl. She has built up a mystique around France, around European sophistication, around intellectual Jews, around the sights of New York. Her breathlessness when she gets in proximity to one of these triggers may be buoyant, but its trying. In addition, her language often tries to capture spoken prose, but the tone sometimes falters: "My parents were good bridge players. This must have been hell on them, for I never learned how to play bridge, though my brother got quite good; actually, I did learn how to play bridge badly."
- Nancy Chapple