Ending a five-year marriage and looking up from the malaise which has covered her life like a fog, D.C.-based writer Cathy Alter begins a quest to transform her life, Oprah-style — all by following the edicts of twelve magazines. Up For Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me About Love, Sex, and Starting Over is her humorous look at trying to attain the “perfect” life featured in the magazines’ spreads — and realizing that reality can actually be better than that.
With periodicals like Real Simple, O Magazine, Cosmo and Allure pouring into her mailbox, Cathy chooses to focus on improving one area of her life monthly. As she tries to end an office affair about to combust and desperately wants to improve her relationship with her well-meaning but critical mother, Cathy looks to her magazines for advice on getting through all of life’s sticky situations.
Determined to put aside her old insecurities and look at life anew, she makes huge strides in being more open-minded about new experiences — especially after a string of bad dates somehow bring her to Karl. After he invites her to come camping with him in California and she (nervously) accepts, Cathy realizes that living life the old way — refusing to take big risks — hasn’t gotten her to where she wants to be. And that all has to change.
There’s much to like about Alter’s wit and the hilarious situations in which she finds herself — including all the gritty details about her affair with Bruno, the office lazybones who skates by on his Latin charisma. At many points I wanted to reach between the text and give Cathy’s shoulder a good shake — I mean, seriously, what was she doing sleeping with this guy . . . especially at work? — I couldn’t necessarily fault her for how her views on life had slipped.
I’m younger than Alter and haven’t been married, let alone divorced, but I’ve ended plenty of relationships — and know the pain that accompanies that. I could definitely sense her real desire to become an “improved” version of herself, but I did have a bit of a problem with the entire concept of looking to women’s magazines for inspiration regarding that change. As any lady can tell you, the representations of appearance, life and experience contained in those pages are anything but realistic . . . and Alter was trying to change her reality, not some fictionalized version of herself. Right? So my gut instinct would be to say magazines aren’t the best place to look for inspiration to make you happier, more secure and better balanced.
But isn’t that exactly what the mags are touting? Self-confidence, poise, popularity, balance . . . and joy, pure and simple? Of course it makes sense to turn to the glossies for tips on handling difficult co-workers and future in-laws or finding the perfect shade of blue to paint your living room. The mags print up all of life’s secrets.
Well, you know the answer to that as well as I do. But Alter’s memoir isn’t about buying into a magazine’s idea of happiness so much as it is about finding your own. And though her situation started out harried and messy, life evolved into something far greater than she could have imagined. And following on her year of magazine-worshiping was definitely fun.
In the end, I actually learned some things — especially about taking big risks. It’s one thing to say that many women share the same fears, but it’s another thing to see your own fears typed out on a page. (Like Alter, I have an Index of Dread I chronicle in my mind, gauging how anxious I am about having to perform certain tasks!) I related to what she was going through and, though I was a little shocked she found such a happy ending in only one year, how could I ever begrudge her that? I’m happy that she’s happy. And I’m happy I was able to jog alongside her as she left her unhappy job and former life to embrace all the love the future would hold for her.
4 out of 5!