Like all great ideas, Jane Juska's had the virtue of simplicity. A divorced California schoolteacher with a grown-up son, semi-retired and tired of passing her afternoons at cinemas with pensioners, she placed a lonely-hearts ad. Hating euphemisms and conceits, she bluntly announced in The New York Review of Books what she was looking for. "Before I turn 67 - next March - I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like." If her respondent wished to talk first, she added, "Trollope works for me".
This is a memoir that sings with passion not just of the physical kind, which Juska eventually finds, but with her profound desire to taste every sensual delight before going into the dark night. It is a story about growing old with grace and fire, fulfilling pent-up longings and being able to slay dragons even in your dotage. But it is also about a woman becoming a writer, and this conceit is the only jarring note in an otherwise seamlessly wonderful read.
Did Juska set out to write about her experiences with these men? Was each one asked if he minded being included, and where did she draw the line about identification? Walter seems particularly vulnerable to spotting. A professor of sociology in New York, he was among the dozens who wrote in. They meet in his office on the ground floor of his college, Juska wearing a baggy sweater and hiking books. They chat across Walter's desk before he commands her to take off her sweater, explaining: "I'm a voyeur". The encounter doesn't go well and Juska kills off any potential when Walter grabs his crutch and she gasps, "Wow! What happened to your leg?"
Juska reveals herself as an utterly distinctive character within the first few pages. Her affairs are interwoven with passages about her childhood in a small mid-Western town, her disastrous first marriage, and her teaching at San Quentin prison. She's wise, funny and widely-read, so you wince for her at some of the guys she finds. At a cafe in San Francisco she meets Danny, a former maths lecturer forced to resign after allegations of sexual harassment. A reformed alcoholic, he livens up their date by pretending to be a psychiatric patient who has forgotten his medication and is threatening to throw himself out of the window. Juska demands he leave a big tip for the horrified waiters.
There are men who lie about their age, marital status and health (one of her lovers is dying of terminal cancer). There is also Robert, another reformed alcoholic, but also a retired doctor who has become a successful novelist and lives in New York. Juska falls in love with him by e-mail and, when it ends badly, she moves on to greener pastures in rural New England with John. Eventually she meets Graham, aged 33, who jokes about their "substantial age gap", and who appears to be the real thing. Throughout, Juska writes with an eviscerating honesty and such clarity of vision that one hopes this book is a debut rather than a swansong.