“Men Are Like Shoes”: How Suzanne Mattaboni’s Debut Novel Once in a Lifetime Shows ’80s Women as the First Generation to Turn the Tables on Men
Although exploration of the 1980s in popular culture often focuses on neon color schemes, synthesized pop songs and vibrant, shoulder-padded fashion, few narratives hone-in on the obstacles of being a woman in what was hailed as “The Me Decade.” The first generation of young women who were encouraged to pursue whatever careers and dreams they pleased, they were also the first to bang their heads against not only an impending glass ceiling, but against the will of men who weren’t always prepared to deal with sharing their status as goal-seekers, movers, and shakers.
In debut novelist Suzanne Mattaboni’s ode to this decade, she follows overly-ambitious art student Jessica Addentro, who’s dying to break free of the boundaries of her semi-sheltered college life and start making a name for herself in the world, while simultaneously exploring love and life within the rousing and sometimes dangerous new wave, post-punk subculture. That drive almost becomes an antagonist in itself throughout the novel, which gives us a glimpse of what happened when this first crop of educated, head-strong women actually attempted to have it all. It was a tough path, but also an adventure for those who had the chance to ride it.
For instance, an older (if dysfunctional) matriarch-type in the book points out that Jessica’s is the first generation with the freedom to overtly objectify men. When Jessica’s guitarist crush asks about her sexual experience, she tells him that men are like shoes. The response is not as glib as it sounds: She explains that her enthusiasm for getting busy with him doesn’t equate to promiscuity. “You don’t need to own a ton of shoes to know a great pair when you see one,” she reasons. But once you find them, “You want to wear them. All the time. Because they make you feel fabulous.”
When asked if she’s using the guitarist as a short-term boy toy, she says that with shoes, it’s not so much the walking that you love. It’s the shoes. Yet unfortunately for all us women — including the four tenacious girlfriends in this book — fabulous shoes can sometimes hurt a girl, too. But despite setbacks, betrayals and romantic confusion, these young women are able to keep their focus on their own goals and proceed undaunted. (Or, well, maybe somewhat daunted, depending on the day.)
Not only is the novel a great read, with stylish prose and analogies that gob-smack you with sharpness, it’s full of ironic moments that make the protagonist question how in the hell she landed where she has, much like the lyrics of the David Byrne song the book takes as its name. Sometimes that place is the indignity of crouching under a restaurant table, trying to stabilize the leg of a wobbling four-top while keeping her waitressing skirt from flashing the dining room. Sometimes it’s hovering half-dressed over a boyfriend’s answering machine, debating whether to play a message from the garbled woman’s voice she heard in the background during their last futon romp. And for a fleeting second, it’s the view through the fractured windshield of a bitchin’ Camaro as it vaults toward The Delaware River.
The book captures the energy of creative, impatient young women waiting for their lives to really begin, bouncing from club to club and boyfriend to boyfriend to find a passion that sticks. Or in Jessica’s case, to find a partner who’s sincere enough not to hold her back, “push-pinned to one location,” as she calls it. It includes humor, yearning, gender confusion, and epiphanies. Not to mention a slew of 1980’s musical references that will make any new wave fan swoon with memories of slam dancers and gritty club concerts, Doc Martens and rubber jelly shoes, and cool finds at Philadelphia’s Zipperhead goth boutique. These imperfect characters aren’t afraid to show their raw and bitchy sides, supporting each other even in their most flawed, mascara-ruining moments.
Once in a Lifetime recalls elements of Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, from the musical quest of its youthful group of artsy and devoted best friends, to drag show antics, to a gross bit involving chewing gum. A cross between Stephanie Danler’s instant New York Times bestseller Bittersweet and a John Hughes flick, it’s sure to awaken nostalgia in past post-punk rockers.
It will also make the latest iteration of college-age women feel they’re not alone in facing the newness of the world. And that’s despite the fact that most literature in today’s publishing landscape is aimed either at “YA” teens several years younger than they are, or women already in the throes of careers, marriage, or motherhood. Not since The Devil Wears Prada has a novel so convincingly captured a young person’s frustrating but thrilling journey as a low-woman on the totem pole, fighting for a moment to break through and begin to make their mark in the universe.
“Once in a Lifetime is a tribute to a decade that was an ultimately exciting time to come of age,” said Suzanne. “But it’s also the story of a girl who’s starting to wonder if she’s too determined for her own good, and if her intense focus on experiencing the world is going to cancel-out any hope for a decent relationship. This is still a dilemma for strong women. We’re intimidating. The girls of the ’80s were the first to step out and hit that wall.”
In this novel, they approach those boundaries with the artistic style of an early MTV video: Full of fun and flair, but seriously committed to creating something amazing.
Suzanne Mattaboni’s Once in a Lifetime is available on Kindle and Nook with a paperback launch pending May 24.