Alice has, over the course of a thirty-six year career, climbed to the top of the corporate ladder. But now she is sixty-two years old and her company is merging with another corporation. Alison Cummings, a brash, younger, unmarried, childless executive from the other organization has an MBA from Harvard — as well as designs on Alice’s job. Unfortunately, Alice’s loyal, faithful secretary has decided to retire, so she has no one to run interference for her or spy for her. Alice definitely has an attitude — she is not happy about the pounds she has put on in recent years and definitely not thrilled about aging. She is convinced that others are judging her as harshly as she criticizes herself. But she deserves some slack because, after all, she raised her two sons alone after her husband left her for another woman. She has not been involved with a man for the better part of two decades.
Shirley is a feisty, red-haired survivor. At sixty years of age, her most recent boyfriend has walked out on her. He stiffed her for rent and groceries, but at least he didn’t find her hidden cash savings. She has made a career for herself as a masseuse with a fairly stable clientele, but she is growing weary of having to make so many house calls, dragging her table and other supplies from place to place. She dreams of opening her own spa where she could provide so much more for her clients than massages. But starting a new business requires capital and investors. Shirley has no idea about how to construct a business plan or attract investors.
Marilyn is a brilliant, accomplished professor, as is her husband, Theodore. Neither of them are attractive, nor is their son, Teddy. Marilyn wears the same clothes she did twenty or thirty years ago, pulling her long, gray hair into a bun each day as she heads out to her laboratory. Her marriage to Theodore was never founded upon passion or desire. It was always based upon common intellectual pursuits, comfort, and convenience. But at this point, Marilyn can’t even recall how many years it has been since she and Theodore were intimate. Some years ago, Theodore’s research paid handsomely and now that Teddy is engaged to Lila, a beautiful young woman from a glamorous, successful family — her father is a renowned plastic surgery with a celebrity clientele — Marilyn worries that perhaps it is money Teddy’s fiancee seeks. Marilyn wants to be sure that her son is loved for who he is, not for what he has.
Faye is fifty-five years old and has spent the last year mourning her beloved husband, Jack, an attorney who died suddenly. She enjoyed a career as a painter, but since his death, she is incapable of focusing upon her art. She adores Laura, her only daughter, and infant granddaughter Megan, but is worried about her daughter, who seems unable to cope with the demands of motherhood, managing a home, and being a wife. Now her daughter suspects that her husband is having an affair with the receptionist at his law firm. Faye needs to know the truth so that she can help her daughter decide what to do: Stay with her husband and work at saving the marriage, or divorce him and face a different future than the one she imagined for herself and her baby.
Four women facing crises in their lives, each of whom is invited to the retirement party for Alice’s secretary, meet. They form an unlikely friendship over drinks as they commiserate. They agree to help each other find the answers they seek. They dub themselves “The Hot Flash Club.”
Nancy Thayer is known for her ability to craft entertaining stories about women, their friendships, and familiar relationships fraught with conflict. The Hot Flash Club is the first of a series of four books about Alice, Shirley, Marilyn, and Faye.
Each character is intriguing in her own right, and utterly believable. Each is dealing with plausible issues, although the way in which the members of the Hot Flash Club go about solving their problems is anything but conventional. Embracing the novel’s initial premise, the manner in which the women meet, and the plans they put into action requires a significant willingness to suspend disbelief on the part of the reader. But thereafter, the story becomes both engrossing and enjoyable.
Alice “hires” Marilyn as her new executive assistant so that Marilyn can flirt with and spy on Barton, her rival’s assistant. Because Alice barely knows Marilyn when she decides to launch her into a new career in corporate espionage, Alice is unaware of how naive and gullible Marilyn truly is, despite her formal education. After Marilyn is made over — coiffed, made up, and clothed — she embraces her new identity and enjoys the attention Barton lavishes upon her, especially after she learns about Theodore’s double life. Is Barton really attracted to Marilyn or is he simply willing to do anything to gain favor with and gather information for his boss?
Faye launches a new career as the housekeeper for Lila’s family, the Eastbrooks. Using an pseudonym, Eugenie, Lila’s mother, hires her immediately without checking her impeccably fake references. The Eastbrooks have secrets, just as Marilyn suspected, and Faye is determined to uncover the truth about Lila’s feelings for Teddy. Nothing could have prepared her for what she learns not just about the eccentric Eastbrooks, as well as herself.
Shirley decides to award six free massages to Jennifer, the law firm receptionist and supposed mistress of Faye’s son-in-law. She tells her that someone entered her name in a drawing at a local business which has paid for the massages, hoping that Jennifer will open up and talk about her personal life during the massage sessions. Jennifer turns out to be a lonely young woman, living and working on her own. She is not an ogre but, rather, idealistic and, like Marilyn, gullible. Shirley comes to care for Jennifer and does not want to see her hurt.
Meanwhile, Alice learns a great deal about Shirley’s business acumen — or lack thereof. Despite her lack of managerial and financial expertise or experience, Alice realizes that her dream of owning and operating a spa is actually a sound business proposition, so she puts her own skills to work. Soon, Shirley has a business plan and the women are wooing investors.
As with Thayer’s other friendship tales, the women of The Hot Flash Club grow and become empowered through their experiences and relationships. Obviously, the women’s ages are an important aspect of the story — all have lived full lives, but are at a turning point and ready for change. All are anxious to begin the next chapter, even though, at the outset, they have no idea what it will look like. All four of them are, by the end of the story, transformed — in Marilyn’s case, a major makeover springboards her into action as Alice’s new assistant — both physically and internally. Alice’s resentment about her weight and age gradually evolves into acceptance and even appreciation of all that both represent. Faye realizes that sometimes you have to let go and move on. Shirley embarks on a wonderful new adventure, and Marilyn is on her own, experiencing many feelings and emotions for the first time. Some of the plot contrivances slow the action down a bit, but Thayer is to be forgiven for those lapses given that they propel the story and enable the women to experience events from which they learn and evolve. There is plenty of humor and heart, making The Hot Flash Club a perfect book for a lazy summer afternoon by the pool.
As my book club discovered, The Hot Flash Club provides ample material for a lively and free-ranching discussion about female friendships, trust, the good and bad aspects of growing older, female role models, feminism . . . The author’s discussion questions are available on her website.