Raised by an ur-feminist, encounter-group-hosting historical novelist, Amy lacks the passion for career that propelled her mother, nor has she mastered the serenity of her pragmatic friend Karen, who has made peace with stay-at-home motherhood. Amy's dissatisfaction only intensifies when she develops a friend's crush on glittering Penny Ramsey, another mother at school who seems to effortlessly negotiate family and work while also dallying with a dashing colleague. Drawn into the love triangle, Amy can no longer avoid facing the ennui she feels about her aimless life and cookie-noshing, workaholic bedmate.
Meanwhile, her fellow nappers also are stirring. Former artist Roberta has trouble painting and so befriends a promising art student in South Dakota whom she meets while volunteering at an abortion clinic. Jill, who is friendless in her suburban exile and jealous of Amy's new pal, obsesses over her disconnected 6-year-old daughter and flagellates herself for her lack of maternal instinct. The abrupt and violent end of Penny's affair forces Amy, and then the rest, to confront how completely they've been living through and for others, asleep to their own desires.
If Wolitzer were content to people her book solely with women happily married and wealthy enough to afford the luxury of ambivalence, it would be a too-familiar read. But she weaves in vignettes of marginal South Dakotans and various iconoclastic mothers and muses, subtly showing how women's individual choices (or lack thereof) are inextricable from the history and future of feminism. Our four main characters are not the social reformers and hell-raisers their mothers were -- they may question, but they never reject, the very institutions that compel their dilemmas: capitalism, monogamous marriage, competitive child-rearing. Instead, living in an era with no barricades to throw themselves upon or protests to march in, they try to lead their lives as responsibly and thoughtfully as they can. It doesn't matter, Amy realizes, whether you stay home or return to work, so long as you do it with your eyes fully open, coming down "on the side of purpose."
The book occasionally reads like an overly earnest polemic or a chatty episode of "The View," but for the most part Wolitzer perfectly captures her women's resolve in the face of a dizzying array of conflicting loyalties. To whom does a woman owe her primary allegiance? Her children? Her mother? Her friends, spouse, community? God forbid, herself? For all the hands tugging at their skirts, Wolitzer knows women are ultimately left alone with their choices, and they must be able to live with them. Some of the book's most poignant moments take place outside the sorority, in solitude, as when Jill weeps in her darkened kitchen, finally coming to terms with her daughter's very real deficits, or when Amy stumbles across self-contained Penny, eating her frozen yogurt alone in crowded Penn Station, deeply absorbed in choosing slides for the job she loves, and decides not to disturb her.
"All around the country," the book begins, "the women were waking up." If women wait to have all the answers, they will never get out of bed. Talk is fine, Wolitzer tells us, necessary, even -- but action is better. By the end of the novel, there is an empty booth at the Golden Horn diner and a line of anxious young moms waiting to fill it, but for Wolitzer's women it's time to get dressed, kiss their kids and get their coffee to go.