The Light Stuff

A Rough Guide to the Flash and Trash of Summer Reading

Taking another look at Sontag's polemical "Trip to Hanoi," which comes under heavy Rollyson and Paddock artillery, it becomes evident that not only are the biographers willfully reading her work in light of their grudge, but that they have little appreciation for the embattled context in which the essay emerged. Yes, Sontag may have overlooked the North Vietnamese's capacity for aggression. But perhaps the publication of this biography will provide another chance for her to address the subject of human torture. —Charles McNulty

Flux: Women On Sex, Work, Love, Kids and Life in a Half-Changed World
By Peggy Orenstein
Doubleday, 293 pp., $25

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Rosignano Solvay, Sea 2. August 1998 (detail), from Beach & Disco by Massimo Vitali
Massimo VitalI, from Beach & Disco, published by Steidl
Rosignano Solvay, Sea 2. August 1998 (detail), from Beach & Disco by Massimo Vitali

Peggy Orenstein's Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids and Life in a Half-Changed World feeds the same voyeuristic hunger that's made detailed, physical descriptions a fixture of women's magazines. In Flux, fashionably slender Barb, with her blue eyes and a highlighted bob; willowy, long-legged Gayle, with hair "that cascades in rippling curls down to her shoulders"; and tall, wispy Abbey, with her pixie haircut, are all introduced to illustrate the travails of college-educated women in their twenties, thirties, and forties.

If any one thing brings the women of Flux together, it's that most have had their expectations nurtured by the promise of feminism—and dogged by the practical difficulties of balancing the personal and professional. When taken together, Shay's search for dates, Emily's day care dilemma, and Dana's furtive search for private office spaces to pump her breasts address the well-worn question of whether women can have it all with a nuanced "no." The most extreme of Orenstein's subjects believe they can't manage both families and successful careers, and have either deliberately forgone relationships and kids or have altogether eschewed work. The women that make the starkest impression, though, are still grappling with a desire for everything—or at least with the disappointment of not getting it.

In one of the clearest demonstrations that modern womanhood is in fact only half changed, a group of single, twentysomething women discuss their futures. "I can do what I want: have a career, get married or not, have children or not," one says confidently. But Orenstein scratches more traditional, panicky expectations that lie beneath this glib surface. When she asks the same women if they can envision being single at 40, they freak out. Orenstein hits on the limits of such half liberation: "If women can't see single life as a viable alternative with its own set of costs, rewards and challenges, then they remain as controlled by marriage as previous generations, equally vulnerable to making choices negatively—out of fear instead of authentic desire."

Ultimately, though, the book sags under the weight of Orenstein's thoroughness; she would have done well to narrow the effort to what is obviously her deepest interest: the question of motherhood. The sections about the challenges of raising young children are her best. And it is not entirely surprising when halfway through the book Orenstein reveals that she put off pregnancy in her early thirties. Since then, she's decided she wants children, but has been unable to have them after a bout with breast cancer and a subsequent miscarriage. It's the kind of admission that makes Flux a compelling rea

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