In fiction, the stay-at-home mother is something of a figure of fun. But in her best novel to date – and she has written some terrific ones – Meg Wolitzer flings back the covers to reveal a more nuanced portrait of motherhood and female ambition. The narrative revolves around a group of four middle-aged New York mothers who, having abandoned careers as bankers, artists and academics, now expend their energies timetabling play-dates and music lessons. After 10 years of round-the-clock parenting, they're starting to "wake up" to life beyond the school gate.
At their heart is Amy Lamb, a former lawyer struggling to pay her son's school fees. Her own mother, a cape-wearing historical novelist, is nagging her to go back to work but, deep down, Amy is terrified by a new legal software package, and – more importantly – isn't quite ready to let go of her baby's hand.
Entering the women's orbit, but not their booth at the "Golden Horn" coffee shop, comes Penny Ramsey. Petite and blonde, not only does she have a rich financier husband and three children, but a "proper" job running a city museum. She's also having an affair with a freckly British curator. Relishing this romance second-hand, Amy – like the "crippled girl in a wheelchair in an old storybook" – is distracted from the demise of her own love life and a husband more interested in raiding the cookie jar than conjugal rights.
To describe Wolitzer as a comic novelist would be to underplay a writer whose ironic voice and worldly insight place her in the same league as Anne Tyler and Alison Lurie. Able to nail an era or emotion, snack or sexual position with deadpan accuracy, she's the kind of writer who leaves you gulping with recognition. The well-manoeuvred cast of minor characters – from schlepping husbands to anorexic single mothers – add another layer of complexity to an already rich feast.
Early on, there's a flashback to a Seventies consciousness-raising event. A group of suburban housewives, waiting in line to stare down a speculum, witness not only female flesh, but a gleaming future where "everyone would work, everyone would have power, everyone would help out at home". Thirty years on, and their daughters are finding out what men have long known: most jobs aren't that interesting. Yet without work, as Wolitzer's "Post-Speculum" feminists also discover, "How do you bear the rest of your life?"