My Thirty-First Year (And Other Calamities)
By Emily Wolf
Reviewed by Emma Boone
After only the first paragraph, I had to pause and take a breath to appreciate just what I was reading. Not because Emily Wolf is a straight shooter, and delves right into the touchy subject of abortion—she does do that—but because of the way she handles the matter. Her dialogue is immediately humorous (a trait needed in both writing and good relationships *sigh*).
“Zoe. You need new dating panties. I blinked, still foggy from the anesthesia, and tried to focus on the ancient pair of Jockeys my mom was holding at the foot of my gurney” (Zoe’s Mom to Zoe).
Even Wolf’s ‘Table of Contents’ indicates the humor to come, with ‘Part One’ of the novel titled “Shit Smithereens.” Is it slightly crude? Yes, but it’s also the perfect sentiment. Readers everywhere will be nodding along and saying to themselves “Yep, that’s what it feels like.” It’s even got some catchy alliteration going on.
Humor’s not the only positive, though. Wolf’s words hold raw emotion, the type that elicits goosebumps.
“I slowed my breath. Released my jaw. I attempted to be present in the tiny, curtained recovery cubicle”
Wolf’s words are also relatable, even in the midst of an abortion.
My mom squeezed my feet. But I am still me, I reminded myself. I am still me.
The combination of the latter three elements (humor, emotion, and relatability), I call grace. That is to say, Wolf’s humor and emotion are at times self-deprecating, but only to the point of relatability; Wolf knows her main character well; she never lets Zoe compete too much with the hopeless martyr. Even in a wheelchair and wearing diapers, Zoe maintains her poise. It is a great way to begin a novel, with this likable Zoe.
Anyone who likes to read will tell you that ‘good characters, a good novel makes,’ and through Zoe, a whole cast of them is possible. Zoe has so much on her mind: the abortion, divorce, her new life (which she endearingly refers to as ‘the After’). It’s enough to make a person go crazy, but still, Zoe is selfless enough to notice her mom’s “huge, green eyes,” swimming with sympathy and concern at the hospital. Zoe understands her mom has “(strong) opinions,” and patiently listens when she ‘spews’ them. She even talks about her 24 year old brother, “[his] maturity and calm,” but also Zach's old and relatable hate for anything school-related!
Wolf’s details offer new characters, making the story feel all the more complete and genuine. These new characters also reveal Zoe’s traits: her selflessness, her love for family. Zoe is therefore made into a three-dimensional character. It’s a good cycle, all around, with characters informing characters informing characters. It’s anything but stagnant. My Thirty-First Year (And Other Calamities), then, becomes not only a relatable story, but a believable one.
In Part Two, Zoe moves right along by discussing her first ever high school relationship, and then her college relationship with Rob. She explains how Rob would “fill [her] up just enough—with a sweet gesture, a kind word, a well-timed kiss. Rob was very good at just enough.” I’m inclined to say this part of the book feels cliché, but maybe that’s okay. It reaches different age groups (high school and college), after all, and is exactly where the popular Tiktok advice comes from: “if he wanted to he would.”
When Zoe talks Marshall Scholarships with Rob, and studying abroad, he doesn’t do just enough, though. He gets angry. He morphs into the stereotypical husband who feels threatened by his smart wife; the wife who earns more than him; the wife who’s not a homemaker; the girl with ambition. It’s a tale as old as time, but I suppose another telling, and another, can’t hurt because isn’t it always true? And relatable? And believable?
Wolf continues with the deep emotional themes, past the humor now, but is careful to keep a balance. Just as much as Zoe bemoans her love life with Rob, for example, there’s also some sweet instances when she *spoiler alert* gets into Yale law school. At Yale, Zoe meets John, a soft-spoken but intelligent law student. Relatable Zoe emerges once again during their interactions. She even blushes and doubts herself, after all she’s accomplished.
“I couldn’t believe that John was actually attracted to me. (I’d seen pictures of his last girlfriend—she looked like Keira Fucking Knightley)”
As a young reviewer myself, I did not expect to read about this type of doubt in grad students, so Zoe’s truthful recounts filled me, my hopeless romantic self, with hope. My parents met in law school, so I imagine for others, her words call up nostalgia. Or regret. Or even excitement. Regardless, Wolf exposes her insecurities, which allows others to connect.
Zoe Greene’s character is fictional, but her emotions, her experience, and the women she touches are anything but. As a young reviewer, I have to say people of all ages and demographics should pick up the book. I, for one, may not be 30, but after reading My Thirty-First Year (And Other Calamities), I’d like to think I’m not like the scared kid, who reacts negatively to Zoe after announcing she wants a divorce, but perhaps a more empathetic, knowledgeable one. (I mean, even writing out that title aged me!)
“He, a twenty-year-old kid with long, blond eyelashes, gave Mom her change and closed the window in record time. She sighed in solidarity.”
It’s also a title that may seem to give everything away, but just like all else between the covers, it’s unabashedly personal which, ironically, makes it feel collective. A book of the people. Not all of the Wolf’s content may be groundbreaking or exciting, like an action novel, but that’s exactly the point. Wolf’s work is about fears that we all have—about dating and work and self-esteem. It creates an environment of safety and comfort. Wolf discusses insecurities that are not, in fact, confined to a certain age group. They are instead so common, it’s ironic the way society has stigmatized these problems. But Wolf courageously brings them to life again in her “My Thirty-First Year.”
* * *
I’ve been thinking about the novel recently, as a form of communication. It’s amazing how much we hold inside ourselves on the day-to-day. How much we don’t say when someone asks “How are you?,” for any number of reasons … but instead, how much we’re willing to express in the private confines of a book’s pages. Just us and the ink—and oftentimes, our terrible thoughts. They flood and race down that pen like nobody’s business.
It’s comforting that the privacy of the novel allows us this full range of expression that the everyday doesn’t afford; it allows Zoe Greene to become a full-fledged character, until she is, in fact, like the 30-year-old in real life who’s supposed to have it all figured out, but instead, whose life and relationship are in utter shambles. It is reassuring. It is therapy for readers.
But then the ink and our terrible thoughts become not-so-private anymore. They become public to any stranger who has the money to pick up a copy of My Thirty-First Year (And Other Calamities). So the novel is the medium that honors courage: the courage of the author to write for strangers. The courage of that 30-year-old somewhere, to pick up this book and read it through. To even read this review.
It is the medium that defies normal convention in that does actually answer that “How are you?.” It destigmatizes pain and mental health. It is
“Zoe. You need new dating panties. I blinked, still foggy from the anesthesia, and tried to focus on the ancient pair of Jockeys my mom was holding at the foot of my”
The raw emotion when she speaks of Rob, Zoe’s unfaithful boyfrined, the guilt she’s suffered, the unpredictability of her futureis heartbreaking, to be sure. But it expemiplifies Zoe’s courage.
To really appreciate what I was reading: what the author was offering as a gift to other women on just the first page. Her courage that the author was not only offering a piece of herself in this very first chapter but that she had the courage to do so.
It is such a good start to a book, something so relatable and something that may or may not be, abortion.
It is dealt with, not that talk of abortion needs to be handled, with humor and relatability. This is why it is difficult to write reviews!
It is heartbreaking, this reaffirmation, that “My mom squeezed my feet. But I am still me, I reminded myself. I am still me” because right after affirming to us that the author is still herself, she doubts herself a few paragraphs later.
Published by She Writes Press, August 2022