‘The End of Men’ is a clever, emotional tale of friendship
The first chapter of Karen Rinaldi’s novel “The End of Men” opens with the line, “Now that Isabel was pregnant, she knew what it felt like to be an eighteen-year old boy.” The rest of the novel follows this kind of format, turning your expectations inside out. Told from alternating third person perspectives, the novel follows four women who are all juggling business, family, love, sex, pregnancy and existential crises — though not necessarily in that order.
This is a story of uncertain marriages, of questioning what is worth a sacrifice or a risk; it is a story of complicated affairs and balancing 24/7 jobs with personal desires; it is a story of choice — not the banal “should women be able to choose whether they want to have bodily autonomy” kind of choice, but the more complicated kind that really doesn’t have a correct answer. More than any of that, it is a story of how simultaneously firm and elastic a net made of friendships between women can be. (For the record, the first line refers to thinking constantly about sex, in case you were confused.)
All four women are master jugglers, though each struggle in their own way. Beth is juggling a hugely successful company that sells lingerie for pregnant women, often reveling in the controversy that her business attracts from both sides of the ideological spectrum even as it stresses her friends out, and a husband dying from HIV who refuses to take medication or admit to his family that he has had sex with men. Isabel is newly pregnant by her husband, but has to figure out how to handle a pseudo-affair that was never quite romantic, nor only platonic, as the man in question re-enters her life. She decides to live these months doing what is best for her, as she knows that once she has a child, her life won’t belong to herself anymore. Maggie complicates the conception of the “Other Woman,” as she embodies that label in a startling way, ending with a twist that leaves you rooting for all parties involved. Anna, Isabel’s older sister, is juggling a husband who doesn’t pull his weight with the overwhelming urge to do everything from supporting the family to taking care of the kids by herself anyway.
While at times slightly prosaic, “The End of Men” is full of a quirky panache that creates memorable, loveable and frustratingly relatable characters. Rinaldi has taken what often feel like shameful confessional sentiments of women in the “can women have it all” age and blown them up so they finally feel life-size and effable. She offers no judgment on her characters, and makes us think twice before judging them ourselves. It captures the things women do for those they love, the things they do because they feel they should and the things they do, finally, for themselves, once they’re ready to take that step — which they all know should’ve come first.
Incidentally, “The End of Men” is the perfect beach read: fun, stimulating, bloggable and, if any guy bothers you while you’re reading it, you can tell him it’s a how-to manual.