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Originally published Friday, March 28, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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An entertaining spin around the Mommy Track in "The Ten-Year Nap"

In "The Ten-Year Nap" Meg Wolitzer plumbs the issue of the "ten-year nap" — that possibly permanent hiatus in many women's working lives — through a probing examination of four middle-class, contemporary 40-something New York wives and mothers.

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Ten-Year Nap"

by Meg Wolitzer

Riverhead Books, 351 pp., $24.95

It's an issue that has attracted a lot of controversy in the past few years: the well-educated woman who leaves the workforce to have children — and never quite finds her way back in. An earlier generation of women who espoused the feminist movement and made high-level careers more possible for their successors is often bewildered and affronted by the younger women who opt to quit their careers to be full-time mothers. And those young mothers feel a whole range of strong emotions: desire to be with their families, worry that they've wasted their education and talents, and the sense that their high-level job in the law firm or accounting office wasn't really all that enthralling.

Novelist Meg Wolitzer, whose earlier books range from the hilarious girl-buddies "Friends For Life" to the wry and wrenching "The Wife," is something of a specialist in gender issues. She plumbs the issue of the "ten-year nap" — that possibly permanent hiatus in many women's working lives — through a probing examination of four middle-class, contemporary 40-something New York wives and mothers.

The quartet-of-girlfriends premise initially feels a little formulaic, as if designed for a "Sex and the City" or "Cashmere Mafia" TV series (right down to the carefully representative demographics and the regular group breakfasts in a Manhattan restaurant). Our four married heroines have backgrounds in law, art, film production and banking; three of them (excepting an Asian math genius) feel considerable ambivalence about their decadelong "nap" away from work.

Wolitzer reveals the interior seesaw many young mothers experience — their unwillingness to abdicate either motherhood or careers, and a deeper ambivalence about whether work can provide happiness and satisfaction as well as a paycheck. Her central character, Amy, is a former lawyer who doesn't have a real passion for law or for the milieu of desperate overwork common at legal firms, but she is disturbed to realize that her husband is struggling to provide the family's lone income.

Jill, whose doctoral dissertation is a failure and who left an abortive career in film, has her hands full with the learning-disabled child she and her husband adopted from Siberia. Roberta is embittered because she hasn't managed to capitalize on her artistic talent, and she's envious of her husband's late-blooming successes. Brilliant Karen, married to another math whiz with whom she likes to recite sequences of prime numbers aloud when they're drifting off to sleep, is ironically the most employable of the foursome, but she's also the only one who is content to arrange the freesias, manage the equally brilliant twin sons and "make her family life run beautifully."

As a counterpoise to this foursome, Penny, the "woman who has it all" — husband, three kids and career as the director of the Museum of Urban Vision — seems perfect from the outside. But a series of events capped by a harrowing incident shows that Penny's moral compass has gone seriously awry.

Wolitzer's great ear for dialogue and for insinuating humor into seriousness make this novel a thought-provoking pleasure to read.

Melinda Bargreen is the classical music critic for The Seattle Times.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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