At fifty-three, Maggie Harris has a good marriage and two grown children. Maggie is perpetually anxious and has accumulated a list of fears she considers semi-reasonable: falling air conditioners, the IRS, identity theft, skydiving, and airbag recalls. Maggie has never, however, worried that Adam, her husband of nearly thirty years, would leave her.
And then he does.
As Adam walks out the door, everything that has provided Maggie security leaves with him. Only then does she realize that while she’s been busy caring for everyone else, she’s become invisible to the world — and to herself.
Maggie cautiously begins to rebuild her life with a trip to Rome, a new career, and even a rebound romance. But when a fresh crisis strikes and an uncertain future looms, she must decide: How much will she risk to remain the woman she’s just become?
“It’s an age-old story: woman meets man, man woos woman, woman spends her best years believing their love is the everlasting kind. . . . Woman embraces aging with hair dye and ample amounts of wine. Man faces his impending morality by convincing himself that a younger woman is the answer to his waning energy and flagging libido. retain their sparkling future is worth the collateral damage, the May-December duo ride into the sunset as our heroine stands in the shadows, stunned by this unexpected rewrite. Yes, mine is a tale as old as time. Beauty replaces the beast.”
So begins Woman Last Seen in Her Thirties, the fourth novel from Camille Pagán, author of Forever is the Worst Long Time, The Art of Forgetting, and Life and Other Near-Death Experiences. Maggie Harris narrates the story of how her settled, secure, and predictable life unraveled the day her husband, Adam, announced he was having an affair with a younger woman and wanted to end their twenty-seven year marriage. Indeed it is a “tale as old a time.”
But Pagán puts a delightful and insightful modern spin on the story. First, she creates a likable, empathetic protagonist in Maggie, a woman who is left to find her way through the morass of emotions associated with the end of a relationship she thought would only be dissolved by death. Her grown children who no longer need her to shepherd them through their own lives. And her dreams about how growing older and retirement will unfold have been fully dismantled. Maggie come to the inescapable conclusion that she hasn’t been in touch with her true self since sometime back in her 30’s. Now, at 53, she is forced to face the consequences of having poured all of her energy into meeting the needs of her family.
First, she decides to proceed with the vacation she and her husband had planned — by herself. Although traveling alone is a new and, at times, daunting experience, makes a new friend on the flight there and mostly enjoys her trip to Rome. Well, there is one excruciatingly embarrassing evening, but, otherwise, the trip is a first step in Maggie’s journey toward empowerment. When she returns home, she decides to move — ostensibly, temporarily — to a place where she doesn’t know anyone and has no ties. Once there, Maggie discovers she has strength and reserves she never imagined.
Of course, there is romance along the way with a man who is very different from Adam. Pagán sensitively and humorously explores what it’s like to risk venturing into an intimate relationship with someone new after so many years of monogamy.
A family crisis threatens to derail Maggie’s newly-minted independence and disrupt her dreams about the future, but also presents second chances and an opportunity to recoup some of what she lost. Maggie finds herself at a crossroads from which Pagán takes her heroine in a direction that invested readers will undoubtedly applaud for its realism and intelligence.
In Maggie, Pagán has crafted a likable and vulnerable character with whom every woman over the age of 40 can relate. In Pagán’s skillful re-telling, the “tale as old a time” is told at a perfect pace with poignancy and charm even as she plumbs the complexities of long-term relationships. Woman Last Seen in Her Thirties readily lends itself both to a lazy afternoon of reading on a beach or a rousing and multi-layered discussion during a book club meeting.