Iron(ing) Man: The Quiet Grace of “An Available Man”

Is there anything more appealing than a man at an ironing board? Hilma Wolitzer, in her delightful new novel An Available Man, takes it one step further, though: Edward Schuyler begins ironing after his wife Bee’s death, not to tend to his own life but to reconnect with her.

“At first, he only pressed things of hers that he’d found in a basket of tangled clean clothing in the laundry room,” Wolitzer writes. And when his ironing is disturbed by the ring of the phone–a woman wanting to comfort him–he returns to the iron only to discover the task is no longer soothing: “His loneliness had been disturbed, and he wanted it back.”

The rest of the story of An Available Man is a simple one: Edward is thrust back into the dating world at 62 when his stepdaughter and stepdaughter-in-law place a personal ad in the New York Review of Books. “Science Guy. Erudite and kind, balding but handsome.” Encounters with the opposite sex ensue.

The women Edward meets, avoids, dates and occasionally sleeps with–the slightly crazy ex-fiance, Laurel; the uber-Republican Karen; the sex-hungry but already married Lizzie–are not always characters feminist readers will applaud. One hates to think that 40 years after the Second Wave of the women’s movement began any woman would remain so hungry for a man to complete her life. Yet Wolitzer portrays each woman with nuance and a healthy dose of compassion, reminding us that loneliness does odd things to us all. Loneliness with a thick icing of grief even more so. Have we never been ridiculous ourselves in the pursuit of love?

Wolitzer leavens what might be a bleak story about grief with abundant humor. Faced with 46 replies for “Science Guy,” Edward wonders “how many responses that bon vivant of a doctor and the retired millionaire must have received.” His birdwatching notes are mistaken for encounters with a different kind of bird. His mother-in-law, Gladys, makes us laugh every time she shows up.

And terrific women do balance the less-flatteringly portrayed female characters. Like Gladys, Bee’s daughter–a bit of a mess, but with a strong core–and her daughter-in-law, too, are so engagingly rendered that we’re left with no doubt why Edward has trouble letting go of Bee’s iron even long after it has gone cold.

And just as we begin to wonder if Edward’s escapades would be quite as funny if he were Edwina encountering crazy ex-fiancés, Democrats and sex-hungry men, friends on Martha’s Vineyard introduce him to Ellen, a real estate agent recently separated from her husband, who wears “the kind of bangles Bee used to wear, sliding musically up and down her arms.” In the course of that relationship, Edward faces the consequences of his own foolishness in love, or at least in sex.

It’s a wonderfully rendered scene. Even as we mourn the demise of the relationship for Edward and for Ellen, we hope that in her shoes we would say as surely as she does, “I have a lot of things to sort out. You probably do, too.”

Then there is Bee, whom we first see talking on the phone while kneading the dog’s belly, “multitasking.” Bee is not an extraordinary woman in any obvious way, but she is comfortable with herself–which is pretty extraordinary, when you stop to think about it.

Edward’s and Bee’s marriage is delivered in small, unforgettable flashbacks. Bee, when faced with the loss of four friends within a year, says, “Our circle is getting smaller and smaller. Soon we’ll only be a semicircle,” to which Edward replies, “And then a comma”–illuminating not just the small joys of their life together, but the reality that Edward, in his love for Bee, is a warmer, kinder and even funnier person than he would be without her, as is she with him.

Edward is, of course, the comma left floundering alone after Bee’s death. Even at his weakest and most ridiculous–perhaps especially at his weakest and most ridiculous–he holds our compassion as well as our interest. And when the right woman for Edward comes along, or comes along a second time, anyway, the result is as satisfying to the reader as it is to Edward, and as much of a surprise.

It is, though, not the arc of Edward’s love story so much as the contrast between his “availability” and his lack of feeling available to anything but his grief that provides the emotional heart of An Available Man. This is a story we can all relate to, women and men alike. It is a funny, charming, and oddly moving exploration of the depths of grief, and the unsettling path back to love.

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Meg Waite Clayton is the author of the novel The Four Ms. Bradwells, a Ms. Summer Recommended Reads selection about a woman nominee to the Supreme Court.