Picks and Pans Review: Mid-Life: Notes from the Halfway Mark

updated 08/21/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/21/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Elizabeth Kaye

Certain books make a critic want especially to rise to the occasion, to be as sharp and smart at commenting on a work as the author was in its writing. Such is the case with the first book of the preternaturally gifted Kaye, a longtime journalist. On second thought, maybe it would be best to leave "longtime" out of the discussion. After all, it was the whole issue of time and its ineluctable passing that pitched Kaye, at 35, into a slough of despond, seemingly without an exit visa.

Kaye, a contributing editor at Esquire, became obsessed by aging—her own and by extension that of her whole generation, to say nothing of her parents', grandparents' and perfect strangers'. She repeated four words from a Robert Frost poem, "Nothing gold can stay." She became as knowledgeable as a dermatologist about the properties of beta-carotene, the pros and cons of Retin-A, glycolic acid and collagen injections. She pondered the time she spent with Buzz Aldrin, who after his tenure as an Apollo astronaut could no longer find an orbit for himself. "He had devolved into an honored guest at ceremonial functions," writes Kaye, "the kind of American celebrity whose future lies chiefly in game shows and product endorsements..."

For years, she hung onto a clipping from The New York Times that chronicled the case of Donald Lambright, comedian Stepin Fetchit's son. Lambright, at 31, went on a killing spree that ended in suicide. "It finally dawned on me that the story of Donald Lambright verified the paradigm I found most basic," writes Kaye, "which is that you spend the first part of your life being young and the rest of it paying for that experience."

This is not what you'd call cheery stuff, and those who are even thinking of turning 35 or so may want to think twice before picking up Mid-Life as it offers so little in the way of redemption. An exercise in self-indulgence? Surprisingly not. And Kaye's Didionesque prose has such shine and inventiveness, her observations are so wry and wise and poignant, that the good long cry that seems inevitable by Mid-Life's end is a small price to pay. (Addison Wesley, $18)

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