GINA NAHAI: Sex, Shopping and the Second Half of Life

It so happened, the other night at a dinner in Bel Air, that I found myself sitting next to the author Judith Krantz. I had met her only minutes before, introduced by a mutual friend who referred to her as Judy and said nothing about who she was and what she did. I thought she was truly elegant, glamorous in a tasteful way and remarkably pretty in her advanced age. She was talking about the years she had spent living in Paris with her husband, how she loves the scent of a book, the sound of its spine cracking the first time it’s opened. I noticed she wore a bracelet similar to mine, only hers had an inscription I couldn’t make out from a distance.

At dinner, I looked again and realized the inscription was a single word — “Scruples” — and then the light bulb went on and I remembered the book and the miniseries by the same title, and recognized the “Nice Jewish Girl” who broke all kinds of barriers, including financial ones, by writing about “Sex and Shopping” to the tune of 80 million books in print.

She told me the bracelet was a gift from her late husband, on the occasion of the publication of her first book. She asked about my writing day — hectic, tortured, never long enough, four books in 22 years — and told me about her own — 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a 20-minute break for lunch, seven days a week, 352 days a year, 13 books in 22 years. She said she stopped writing 10 years ago and doesn’t miss it, because she had said what she needed to say. I thought, but didn’t say, that I don’t think I’ll live long enough to run out of stories, but that every book I write feels like it may be my last. She said that in the year 2000, she turned down a three-book deal because she didn’t think she’d have the patience to do the work anymore. I thought, but didn’t say, that I hesitate to make vacation plans six months away because I don’t know if I’m going to be dead or alive by then. She said she was 49 when she started to write her first book. I’m always thinking I should pack it in at 50, rein in the dreams and accept my limitations, settle for what has been.

It’s very Old World of me, I realize, to assume that life, or at least what can be achieved in it, ends in middle age. I remember when I was a teenager and traveling in Europe and the United States with friends or family, how we were always astonished to see elderly women looking well-kept and enjoying life, making long-term plans and, God help me, actually having aspirations. We came from a culture that reveres the old, prizes their wisdom and assents to their authority. But that’s mostly for men. So we spent hours wondering about the kind of mindset that would compel a 70-year-old to get her hair done twice a week like she was 17 and going to the ball, or wear pearls and high heels to go to lunch with her girlfriends, or travel except to see the grandchildren, or — most surreal of all — even think about dating. As far as we knew, based upon centuries of observation and experience, women ran out of potential (and, therefore, the right to have hopes and dreams) just about the time they neared the end of their childbearing years.

So you can imagine how, for many of us Iranian girls and women, the discovery of this new species of the female gender was a life-changing revelation. My own mother had been married at 16 and had her first child the following year. More than once in my childhood, I had heard her, then in her mid- and late 20s, talk about all the things — painting, going to university, traveling — she would have liked to do, had there been enough time, were it not too late. I had heard other women, her age or even younger, lament similar losses. I knew 26-year-olds whom no one would marry because they were past childbearing age and 21-year-olds whose parents referred to as “aged.”

Suddenly, here in Los Angeles, my mother was taking painting and language classes, driving a convertible, helping her sister set up and run a business. Other women of her generation had started to work, or left their bad husbands, or were dating at age 30 and, once in a while, even getting married. Watching them, I felt as if they had been given a second life, and that they had the valor and the strength of character to do something with it other than be the wives of rich men, or wives who wished they had rich husbands.

So then what, you ask, is the matter with me? Why did I find myself, the night of the dinner with Judith Krantz, astonished by the idea that some people actually begin when the rest of us have quit, that they make 10-year plans and live to see the decade’s end? When did I start to think and act more like the women I knew as a child than those I have since encountered in the West?

The truth is, I have no idea. Until I met Ms. Krantz and heard her story, I wasn’t even aware that there was anything unusual about my own way of thinking. Maybe I’m a pessimist by nature. Or maybe I’m not as brave as my own Jewish mother or some of her friends or that other Jewish girl. Mostly, I think, I’m still haunted by the voices of all those 20-some-year-olds for whom it was already too late.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.