On reaching 35, Elizabeth Kaye felt herself catapulted into a new state of being. Now she has written a poignant book about entering mid-life. Ann Treneman warms to it
When she turned 35, Elizabeth Kaye fell subject to a sorrow that had no name and did not go away. "People spoke of growing old," she says. "Grow was the wrong word. You didn't grow, you didn't evolve. You were catapulted from one state of being to the next."

Can this be true? At first, I didn't believe it. On my 35th birthday I bought a ridiculously expensive hat and was stood up for lunch. Sorrow? I don't think so. Catapulted? Hardly. Still, it was worth thinking further, because I had grown to like Elizabeth Kaye, author of a new and trendily dark-green little book called Mid-Life: Notes from the Halfway Mark.

She is American, she writes beautifully and she has an eye for the important things in life. Like the fact that there is a toll-free number in the US (1-800-300-VEIN) for anyone who needs help in eradicating unsightly veins. Neither I nor Ms Kaye admits to having any such veins, of course, but we are expecting them any day. I took the book into the bath for a quick flick-through and read its entire 186 pages in one go.

Such behaviour is usually reserved for the latest John Grisham, but this was a sort of a thriller: how would she remove the sorrow with no name? What pill or potion would do the trick?

This interest has nothing to do with my own post-35 state, of course, but there does seem to be a lot of it about these days. When I was pregnant, the whole world was expecting as well. Now everyone is reconsidering the meaning of life (and I don't mean the movie). "Crisis? What crisis?" joked a friend as she rolled her eyes. Then we returned to the meaning of life and her career.

Mid-life is a subject of the moment because the baby-boomers have just been through it and, like most things, they believe they invented it. Ms Kaye is a child of the Sixties and her book is "for the generation that believed it could change the world but never expected to grow old". These are the people who once believed no one over 30 could be trusted and then were shocked to find that they were over 30.

"It was amazing how the simple act of ageing could persuade you that youth worship had been a canard all along," she writes. "Still, it had been a potent canard and it left an entire generation of women and men less prepared to confront middle age than any generation since the jazz age."

There is no denying that the boomers have great memories. Elizabeth Kaye ate amphetamines for breakfast, tie-dyed her sheets, and in 1969 found herself living with a man who wore a black turtleneck and made art films. She wore halter tops and bell-bottoms the first time round, and sat in cafes debating whether hashish was better smoked or chewed, and if they should join the Ho Chi Minh contingent for that week's demo. One afternoon, post-35, Ms Kaye heard a man playing the Beatles' "Here, There and Everywhere" in Central Park and started to cry.

Those of us who missed the Sixties cannot compete. No one could get tearful over the likes of "Mama Told Me Not To Come" and "Three Dog Night". In the middle of all this, Ms Kaye defines the nameless sorrow as a realisation that life does not turn out the way we thought it would when we were young. Why didn't she know that earlier? "The path from youth to middle-age veers away from a child's assumption that you will be exempted from the rules and toward the adult's acceptance that rules are applied impartially," she writes. Most of us never believed we were exempt (though we knew how to break them). Perhaps it is only the boomers who believed that it was normal to invent your own rules.

In fact, her book exempts itself from one of the rules of publishing, and that is that every mid-life story should include enough self-help tips, confessions and crime to secure an invitation on to Oprah Winfrey's show. I'm happy to say that Ms Kaye fails on all counts. Her woeful lack of instant self-help tips makes me suspect that she cannot really have lived in California for very long, and her only real crime is a tendency towards surreality. The stuff of her mid-life is Oprah-atic enough - illness, abortion, divorce, death - but she provides none of the nitty-gritty detail. Her speciality is not sensation but the sweeping statement.

Many of these statements worried me. One of the first was the "catapult" and "sorrow" bit. Ms Kaye sees life as the stuff of time-release photography. One moment you are a child kicking along a sandy beach, the next a teenager going to a dance in a taffeta dress and gardenia corsage. "Then there is the moment after that," she writes, "when you open your kitchen door to a teenage delivery boy who calls you ma'am."

I was drawn back thinking about birthday number 35 and that hat. It was a fuzzy sea green with a wavy caterpillar-type thing inching across one side of the brim. Why did I buy it? The shop was young and trendy and I can remember feeling uncomfortable. No one seemed interested in the fact that I was about to spend a small mortgage on a piece of Astroturf for my head. The sales assistant jollied me along as if I were a dim-witted and slightly embarrassing relative, perhaps an aunt who had lost her way to M&S. Aha! So that was being catapulted. She may have a point there. I only wore the hat once, and have never been back to the shop.

When Ms Kaye started crying in Central Park, she did not stop for some time. She may have been a student of anti-ageing trivia - like the fact that you can inject fat into the brow to smoothe frown lines, or the existence of 1-800-300-VEIN - but she does not believe in quick fixes, be they concocted of therapy or silicone. There is something soothing in the fact that this book has no answers except that eventually you can emerge on the other side.

But not before time. "Mid-life is filled with genuine loss," she writes, "each jarring, some as shocking as death, others as predictable as finding you have ceased to be the prettiest girl at the party".

The very fact that she was the prettiest says something about the advantages of her life, but she has also had her share of the other, too. She writes with great feeling about the deaths of her beloved grandmother and grandfather. At 37 she had an abortion after a failed love affair, even though the doctor warned her that it might be her last chance to have a child. "I didn't believe him, because I still believed that opportunity is infinite." Another man did come along but there was no child, and after a few years there was no man either. The marriage ended not in anger but in polite silence, and opportunities seemed extremely finite.

"A long time passed before I could bear doing any of it again, the starting fresh, enlisting hope, committing to memory the names of yet another partner's birthplace and favourite aunt and childhood pets," she says. But a long time came and went and she did do it again. Now, in her early fifties, she is a survivor.

Not everyone does it again. Some are too damaged to try, others stick with the familiar, no matter what the cost. Others still are last seen roaring off in a new Porsche or buying Vitamin E in bulk. Mid-life is a tough teacher, and some do not pass. My father died in his mid-forties and it is only now that I see his death as part of the struggle with mid- life. He was a doctor for whom medicine was a vocation, and he loved his work. Even now, almost 20 years later, when I go back to my small American home-town, strangers come up and tell me of long-past good deeds. He believed that other doctors shared his passions and dreamt of a practice in which they would all work together for the greater good of medicine and the community. But the reality was more difficult: the petty and mundane often won out over nobler ideals.

My father did not die of stress or overwork but of a brain tumour, but I cannot help thinking that he died a disappointed man. His dream could not happen at that time or in that place, and I'm not sure he wanted to accept that. When I was 18 I once asked him what he wanted more than anything in life, and he said: "To be young again." At that time it seemed a very strange answer indeed, but now it makes sense. It's the kind of thing that Elizabeth Kaye's book makes you think about.

'Mid-Life: Notes from the Halfway Mark' is published by Fourth Estate on 10 April, price pounds 12.

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