On Option B and leaning in

I’ve just finished reading Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. It’s all over the place at the moment, so I’m probably telling you what you already know, which is that it is part memoir, part self help, part study of the psychological impact of death and bereavement, inspired by the death of Sandberg’s husband Dave Goldberg, at the tragic age of 47. I thought it was very good indeed.

option b

I was a qualified fan of Lean In. Like many others, I had issues with it – yes, it was overwhelmingly focused on the privileged; yes, it wasn’t focused enough on how you can lean in all you like, and some combination of bad circumstances, bad employers, the inequalities of the parental leave system (or, in the case of the US, no proper parental leave system at all) and societal prejudice can still keep pushing you right back; and yes it hugely underplayed the family sacrifices that are required from anyone – female or male – who chooses to get to the top of their chosen field.

But for all of that, it contained a lot of excellent advice and was an overwhelmingly positive contribution to a conversation in which there are still, every day, so many overwhelmingly negative ones. And one of the strongest sections of all to my mind was the one that I immediately thought of when I heard that Dave Goldberg had died – the chapter ‘Make Your Partner a Real Partner’ in which Sandberg says that one’s choice of life partner is hugely important to any woman who is serious about pursuing her career post-children.

Interestingly, this seems to be one bit of Lean In that Sandberg now regrets: ‘When I wrote Lean In, some people argued that I did not spend enough time writing about the difficulties women face when they don’t have a partner. They were right. I didn’t get it. I didn’t get how hard it is to succeed at work when you are overwhelmed at home. I wrote … about the importance of couples splitting child care and housework 50/50. Now I see how insensitive and unhelpful this was to so many single moms who live with 100/0’.

Sandberg’s loss has given her a new, undesired, radical change of perspective. She is being somewhat unfair to herself and her earlier book here, because the fact that a married parent has no conception of how hard it is to be a single parent does not change the essential rightness of her advice: for those who are in a relationship and have a career, the division of labour is of vital importance. But her disarming honesty about her own experience in Option B, coupled with the research in the book, and the genuinely ‘practical’ approach of steps one can take to deal with and move beyond loss (Sandberg and Grant are careful to distinguish ‘moving beyond’ from ‘getting over’), make the book very powerful.

My father died in 2013, and when he died, all the usual good people in my life did all the usual good things. But one of the best things that bookish people do in virtually any situation, however serious, is recommend books that you might want to read, and that they think might help you. And so during this period (much like all those other life periods) I read a lot. The majority of the books I read were memoirs, and the highlight among them was the brilliant Wild by Cheryl Strayed, which I’m sure needs no introduction. I have since seen the film, scripted by Nick Hornby, which I loved almost as much as the book. But as much as I loved Wild, it is generally inspirational, rather than specifically useful.  ‘I’m going to walk my way back to the woman my mother knew I could be’ says Strayed in the film. Who doesn’t want to be able to do that? In the months following my dad’s death, I was mainly spending 10 hours a day in the office whilst looking after a small child and suffering from debilitating morning sickness. It felt almost possible that if I could somehow get myself into a position where I was hiking the Pacific Coast Trail like Strayed (something which, I should add, I would be utterly incapable of doing at even the healthiest and happiest time of my life) then perhaps I would discover some important life lessons that could help me through this difficult phase. But that clearly wasn’t an option for me – A, B, or C.

But the book that I felt I was lacking – or at least the book that I didn’t come across at the time – was a book like Option B. It has a strong combination of personal experience, efficient how-to-ness and reassuring statistical findings, that one can’t help but speculate appeals to someone of Sandberg’s get-it-done mindset, not to mention someone with her phenomenal workload. Unlike Lean In, it goes to great lengths (arguably too obviously so) to ensure that all types of suffering and loss are covered – as well as Sandberg’s personal story, she and Grant talk about the experiences of children who have lost parents, people who have lived through natural disasters, refugees who have fled persecution in their home countries and even Holocaust survivors. But my sense, without being able to speak for anyone else, is that there are things here that a lot of people recovering from a lot of different types of loss would find valuable.

And if I can end a post about such a serious book on a completely trivial note, Option B reveals that Sandberg is often in bed earlier than I am, a fact that I find almost as inspirational as anything in Lean In. I always suspected that my career might one day be limited by my need to be in bed by 10pm on a week night – but Sandberg is a shining example that this needn’t be the case. So I can now hold my head up in pride, lean in and admit that I haven’t watched Newsnight since early 2009.

On The Gruffalo and deserved success

We in publishing are fond of discussing how book history could and should have gone differently. Why some publisher spent too much on book x; why book y should have sold more copies; it’s a mystery why book z sold as many copies as it did. And so on. We love a good moan about a bit of publishing injustice. Our success as publishers is contingent upon our ability to predict what will work and what will sell. Sometimes we get this wrong. But sometimes, the industry, and the reading public, gets it brilliantly, spectacularly right.

gruffalo

The finest example of this justice at work in the publishing world is The Gruffalo. It is the best-selling picture book of my parenting years. It is also the best. At the risk of sounding dogmatic, it is not one of the best, or among the best, it is objectively, in all senses, the very very best. And I believe its exceptional quality has in every way been the reason for its success.

The Gruffalo walks a line that seriously few children’s books and films manage, in its genuine dual appeal to children and adults alike. The majority of its intended readership does not 100% ‘get it’. Right now, my 2-year-old thinks it’s just a book about a big scary monster and a load of animals larking about in a wood. Perhaps as he gets closer to 4 or 5 he will understand it a bit more. But even then, he won’t understand what adults understand, i.e. the reasons why reading The Gruffalo every night for years is so much more tolerable than doing the same with its many competitors. Its total perfection. Its words, illustrations, rhyming and cadence. The not one but two clever confidence tricks pulled off by the mouse – first on the hungry animals of the wood, and then the same trick reversed, and played back on the Gruffalo himself. The way in which the end so brilliantly echoes the beginning – from ‘a fox saw the mouse and the mouse looked good’ to ‘the mouse found a nut and the nut was good’. In just a few pages, the mouse goes from being potential food himself, to enjoying a peaceful meal having vanquished all the other animals, as well as the fearsome Gruffalo. It is the ultimate story of success against the odds. The Gruffalo’s perfect name and his perfect appearance – theoretically scary whilst still being charming enough to appear on stages and at shopping centres throughout the land without terrifying the toddler population.

Why mention this now, given that I’ve been reading The Gruffalo and thinking all of these things about it pretty much non-stop for the last 7 years? Because, in the last few weeks, I’ve had a rare spell (mainly on the holiday from which I’ve just returned) of feeling a similar sense of publishing justice about my other most recent reads.

First: The Girl Before by J. P. Delaney and Silent Child by Sarah A. Denzil. The bestselling psychological thrillers of recent months in physical and digital respectively. Neither is anywhere near as close to perfection as The Gruffalo, and The Gruffalo has better twists than both (sorry J. P. Delaney and Sarah A. Denzil) but with each of these books, I finished them thinking ‘yes, I can absolutely see why that is such a massive bestseller, phew’. From the titles, to the pitches, to the page-turning unputdownability of the books themselves, reading them was reassuring as well as massively enjoyable.

Then I read My Not So Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella. I’ve written at more length about my love of Sophie Kinsella, and my thoughts on the belittling of her type of commercial women’s fiction here. So I won’t repeat myself, except to say that this latest is everything that all of her books are: witty, clever, and effortlessly of-the-moment. Brilliant for its piss-takes of the word ‘bespoke’ and of how city people behave in the countryside (that was me last week), as well as for its insights into the assumptions that working women make about one another.

And finally … on the topic of working women, I read City of Friends, my first ever (I know, I know) Joanna Trollope, and thought ‘oh good, everything everyone has been telling me about why I should read Joanna Trollope for the last 20 years turned out to be right’. In a world where people give you so much bad advice so often, this is pleasing, plus it takes care of my holiday reading potentially for the next 20 years. Am off to book a few more holidays in which to read her backlist now.