tw/cw: antifat bias, manipulation, abuse

Flirting With Fifty is a modern romance between Paige, who turns fifty approximately midway through the book, and Jack, who is a few years older. Full disclosure: I’m the same age as Paige, and, like Paige’s daughters, I’m the adult daughter of an alcoholic father and a mom who divorced said father late in life, and my personal experiences very much colored how I perceived the book.

There’s not a lot of plot to this book. Paige is 49, divorced, with three adult daughters. She’s a mathematics professor who is popular with students. She has a comfortable life with purpose and social connection and never intends to date again.

But then she has to co-teach a course with a visiting professor, a widower from Australia named Jack. Thirty years ago they slept together and they still have sparks. Should Paige try for love again? It’s a romance, you guys, so yes, she should, although frankly this romance goes south so very dramatically towards the end of the book that I’m inclined to think that she should have just stayed at domestic.

This book is supposed to be romantic, but instead I found it to be an unsettling demonstration of how a lot of abusive relationships start. Paige is presented as a self-assured, self-sufficient woman who really has her act together, and Jack is presented as a confident, caring man who likes to encourage people to try new matters. There are little hints that maybe Paige is not actually super emotionally healthy and that perhaps Jack is controlling. But they were all things that I could sort of hand wave away, until all of a sudden Jack’s behavior escalated in a really upsetting fashion. At first it seemed as though his behavior came out of nowhere, but after giving it some thought I realized that all these little excuses I’d been making for the characters were hiding hints that actually this relationship was headed for serious trouble.

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Buster KEaton's car falls totally and suddenly apart

The tone of the first three-quarters of the book is very matter-of-fact and non-dramatic – I’d describe it as dry. Sometimes this is fine. Sometimes it’s really refreshing for me to read about mentally healthy people who have a relationship in an environment free of, say, alien invasions or explosions of any kind. Notwithstanding, the lack of actual events or conflict makes the book a bit dull, and as I will describe more in a bit, I didn’t actually think that the characters were as mentally healthy as they initially appeared to be. To be honest, I stuck with this book for much longer than I normally would have simply because I liked the concept of a romance involving a woman my age. Almost all of the book is written from Paige’s point of view, and she and Jack co-teach, talk about their classes, chat approximately their adult children, and basically do normal person things with minimal clash.

Setting aside the pace, there are some odd and troubling matters in this first three quarters. For one thing, neither Jack nor Paige have any age-related health or pain issues with the exception of Paige having a low sex drive due to menopause (her sex drive conveniently comes back once she and Jack get together). That’s not problematic, necessarily – a lot of people this age are healthy, fit, and athletic. Not me, but a lot of people! Yet I couldn’t help thinking – really? No one has a tricky knee? No one needs reading glasses? Jack doesn’t have lower back pain from all that travel? When they finally have sex, post-menopausal Paige doesn’t require some lube?

Maybe this struck me more than usual because there are also some odd nuggets of diet culture sprinkled throughout. Paige mentions being glad she is “still slender.” Paige is portrayed frequently at mealtimes, when her meals are described as matters like yogurt and a banana, or chicken breast and vegetables. When she orders Greek food for herself and her daughter, she “ate nearly everything, even the rice, which she normally tried not to do.” In the meantime a reference to her adult daughter, Ashley, having a history of body dysmorphia and being “incredibly slender, exercising all the time” but still thinking of herself as a “big girl” is tossed off and then never mentioned again, despite the fact that the matters mentioned amount to quite a row of red flags.

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Blanche from Golden Girls gives side eyes

Blanche and I are both worried about Ashley, whose body image problems are never alluded to again…

I was also frustrated by how Paige processes her divorce from Ted, her alcoholic ex-husband, and how Paige treats her adult daughters, who are all vocally trying to process their feelings about Ted. Paige usually refers to Ted’s drinking as a ‘problem’, only using the Synonym ‘alcoholic’ twice, and emphasizes that “he wasn’t always like that” and that “his drinking exacerbated his temper.” She is so determined not to be the referee between Ted and her daughters that she fails to validate their feelings and their experience by clearly naming the alcoholism and abuse as such.

I understand that boundaries are important and so is not trash-talking the father of your children in front of them. But by consistently avoiding referring to Ted as an alcoholic and an abuser, and refusing to validate the daughters’ feelings of abuse and abandonment, Paige is leaving them to process their feelings with no support or guidance. Here’s an especially frustrating passage, when Ashley is hurt that her father only wants to see her when it is especially convenient for him.

TW for poisonous and codependent behavior

“Dad’s not a happy person,” Paige said, wanting to smooth things throughout.

“If that’s truly the case, he should do something about it. Like take a hard look at himself. Maybe go to an AA assembly. Ask his family why no one wants a relationship with him.”

Paige gave her a look. “That’s a little harsh.”

“It’s the truth, and you know it.”

Paige didn’t say anything, uncomfortable with the past.

Ashley’s chin lifted. “Dad always took out his frustrations on us. He was always in a naughty temper and he hated that we were happy. It wasn’t okay. And it wasn’t okay that he blamed you-”

“You’re correct,” Paige interrupted, in part because Ashley was correct, but also because Paige didn’t want to do this now. She hated making excuses for Ted. She’d spent years making excuses for her ex-husband, and yet at the same time she didn’t want to live in the past, didn’t want to examine it throughout and throughout. The past was the past. She needed to move forward. She wanted to move forward.

Jesus Wept!

Paige, whether you don’t want to make excuses, STOP MAKING THEM. Stop saying that it’s “harsh” to suggest that an alcoholic go to AA and that a man estranged from his children take an honest look at his life to see how that might have happened! Paige isn’t moving forward; she’s trapped in an everlasting world of “not examining it” and not talking about it, especially not talking about it to the daughters who lived it with her. This is not healthy behavior! This is not boundary setting! It’s denial and just a massive shutting down of a person (in this case, Ashley) who is coming to Paige for support. Interrupting with a brusque “You’re right” and change of subject is not helpful to either of them!

Ashley, the youngest daughter, gets a lot of story time because she wants to move in with Paige and live rent free. Paige fails to give Ashley the validation she needs with regard to her father but also fails to give her some much needed hard love. Her other daughters also seem to have problems that I never fully understood because they weren’t fully explored in the text.

Why does Paige encourage her daughter Nicole to stay with a man who is clearly misogynistic and poisonous, a man who threatened to leave Nicole because she is getting promoted faster than he is?

What is Paige’s problem with her third daughter’s boyfriend?

I was so frustrated by this! It seemed as though vast chunks of story were left out, and Paige either encouraged or passively ignored major issues in herself and her kids.

I’ve been talking a lot approximately Paige because most of the book is from her point of view, but Jack has issues too. On one level he’s just dreamy. He’s a scientist who makes a lot of money (he has a science show on TV) and who is adored by students but not in a creepy way. His adult son adores him. He’s a widower (no pesky ex-wife to deal with!). He’s interesting but doesn’t just talk approximately himself. But I always felt a little uncomfortable about the fact that in the relationship between himself and Paige, he is the one who takes the lead on everything – not by violating consent, as he’s very respectful, but definitely pushing Paige to travel more and to take chances romantically and in other parts of her life.

I’d be fine with this except that Paige doesn’t seem to challenge or change or strengthen or balance Jack’s life at all. A good relationship should involve both people helping each other be the best versions of themselves. I don’t mean that people should enter relationships with the goal of changing one another – that way lies disaster. I just mean that the best relationships are ones in which our partners balance us and enrich us and have a happy and healthy influence on our lives. Near the end of the book Jack says that Paige has “changed him,” but his list of ways in which she has done so is limited to the matters he likes approximately her, not ways in which she helps him grow or ways in which she balances him.

It’s even creepier that Jack is constantly bringing up the fact that when he and Paige had a one night stand thirty years ago, she faked her orgasm. It’s presented humorously, but it seemed to me that, despite his willingness to take the relationship slowly, he was at least partially interested in Paige only because he wanted to prove to himself that he can sexually satisfy her for the sake of his ego. Here’s an example of one of several conversations in which this comes up:

“Whether I did, or didn’t, have an o is none of your concern. And for you to remember that all these years later -”

“You don’t remember? Has it truly slipped your intellect?”

“Again, none of your commerce,” she said, primly.

“I have spent thirty years aware that I left you unsatisfied. I think that makes it my trade.”

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David from Schitt's Creek says OK while looking repulsed

To sum up: The first two-thirds of the book are mostly dull but dotted with weird issues and serious problems that are abandoned in ways that made me more and more uncomfortable. They were all presented in ways that caused me to doubt myself for being uncomfortable.

And then we get to the last portion of the book, in which Paige and Jack take their university students on a study trip to Tanzania.

Dear lord, give me strength.

These students are perfect in every way. No one misses a deadline, no one has a screaming fight with their boyfriend on the plane, no one forgets their shots. At the airport, the students all line up with their passports out and ready. I have never ever in my life seen a line of human beings, student or otherwise, with their documents all out like they are supposed to be.

At one point on the trip, the students go on safari for three days as an official part of the university trip but with no university staff, something I cannot imagine actually happening, not because the students aren’t adults but because it’s a university trip, not a vacation, and staff would be expected to be part of that! The liability issues alone make my head hurt! One of the two staff members, Paige (the other one being Jack) goes on a separate safari for three days because she “doesn’t want to go camping with the students” with her phone on airplane mode! Come on, Paige, that lawsuit writes itself!

Jack then proceeds to create a completely moronic conflict out of nowhere. He knows an old flame will be at the conference during the time that he will also be there, and while Paige will be away from the main conference on safari. He doesn’t tell Paige that his ex will be present even though he knows she feels threatened by this ex.

His reasoning for this is, “I thought you’d panic, assume the worst-”

What a patronizing, controlling, mendacity ass.

Paige dumps him and he freaks out:

“It’s over.”

“Bullshit. You don’t get to decide,” he ground the words out.

WHOOAAAAA. NOT COOL DUDE.

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Tina Fey says "not cool"

Jack then proceeds to stalk and gaslight her by:

  • Telling her she can’t leave him over a misunderstanding (credit to Paige for pointing out that there is no misunderstanding, just a big old planned deception).
  • Telling her that she won’t break up with him over his lying to her face because she’s “not that fragile”.
  • Showing up uninvited to the safari that she is on.
  • Insisting on sitting by “his girlfriend”.
  • Telling her that provided she makes a scene she’ll ruin the day for other people.
  • Telling everyone that she is his fiancée.
  • Laughing in her face when she expresses her displeasure.

Instead of kicking him in the balls and getting a restraining order, Paige falls into his arms and they vow eternal love, etc.

I had hoped that Flirting With Fifty would be an age-positive romance. Instead, a slow creeping of minor but unsettling hints, elements, and plot lines exploded at the end into a full-on horror show of toxic masculinity and controlling, emotionally abusive behavior. I was so disappointed, you guys. I can’t recommend this book to anyone of any age. So much of the poisonous behavior from both Paige and Jack is presented as healthy and romantic.

Honestly, whether this book was presented as a horrifying story of how a relationship can proceed from pretty normal to emotionally abusive by means of a gradually increasing series of manipulative violations of boundaries, it would be a winner. But this is a romance, and I am supposed to believe in the HEA of two people who have neither resolved their own issues nor their issues with each other. I went from being bored, to being uneasy, to being appalled in the course of the book. Give me older characters, but not these ones, please!

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