What is it about comedians itching to get between the covers — book covers, that is? Annabelle Gurwitch’s I See You Made An Effort, a seriously funny collection of essays about teetering over the edge of 50, makes it clear that the draw isn’t strictly literary. To tweak Peter Steiner’s classic New Yorker cartoon: On the page, nobody knows how old you are.
Gurwitch riffs hilariously on such matters as aging out of your wardrobe and heading into “the Eileen Fisher years” draped in “[s]waths of material gently cascading over the area where your waistline once was.” She’s even funnier on AARP solicitations that look like “an ad for white-collar prison uniforms…The entire outfit screams, Here, take my libido and hold it for the rest of my life, which won’t last much longer anyway.” Sure, the man’s arms encircle the woman’s waist. But that makes Gurwitch wonder, “Is he propping her up because she’s suffering from osteoporosis, or helpfully disguising her muffin top?”
Clearly, Gurwitch is squarely in Nora Ephron territory. Cosmetic procedures prove irresistible — from both a vanity and comedic standpoint. “I’ve had things injected in my face that I wouldn’t clean my house with,” she writes. “I’ve filled, frozen and ultrasounded, all in the name of what is often referred to as ‘maintenance.'”
Trying to decide whether to add a scarf to a studied unstudied outfit (“Nothing is as strenuous as effortlessness”), she channels Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck: “The scarf’s official purpose, like its older cousin, the turtleneck, is to cover the gobbler, but standing in my closet, I realize that the scarf also adds color and some je ne sais quoi. I know what the ‘quoi’ is now — it’s the last vestige of feminine flair of the pared-down wardrobe of the middle-aged woman.”
But Gurwitch, sending bulletins from midlife and a career that’s “middled,” is more status-conscious than Ephron. Rather than having it all, like Ephron, she’s pulled between helping her parents, paying for her son’s braces, or buying long-term care insurance. Stuck in what she calls “Hollywood adjacent,” her recourse is to make light of the luxuries she sees all around her but can’t quite afford.
The vantage changes the humor. Although Gurwitch takes pains to reassure us — more than once — that her values are so solid she’s never bought a designer handbag (“The only way I’d pay $10,000 for a bag is if it contained $9,750 in cash and gave me a hot stone massage”), her perspective is from a culture that prizes hot stone massages and is easily seduced by the Asprey lotions at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. She’s well aware that “These are small, petty, first-world problems, but such is the stuff of daily life.”
It’s not all petty — or funny. One story movingly tells about how she and a group of “voluntary kin” helped a dear friend dying of pancreatic cancer, which went from “Tumor Humor” to “Bergman territory” within eight months. In “Sandwiched,” she makes several trips to Florida to help her parents move and nurse her 77-year-old mother through a mastectomy, rushing home to California to buy school supplies for her son.
Inevitably, some pieces work better than others. “Autumn Leaves,” is a juicy extended fantasy about hooking up with an Apple Genius named AuDum who helps fix her sluggish laptop. Less ribald, “Marauding Through the Middle Ages” offers a biting firsthand report of the ignominy of being reduced to bit parts in ridiculous commercials.
A long piece about a UFO cult in college fails to land, but even misguided stories show flashes of sharp wit. My favorite: a friend who, after at long last leaving her serially unfaithful husband, “says it was like she finally lost that last 235 pounds she was lugging around.”
Forty may be the new 30, Gurwitch concludes, but “Fifty is still fifty.” How to deal with it? Maintain a sense of humor. Take pleasure in inducing withering eye-rolls from your teenaged son. And smile, but not too much: “too many wrinkles.”