Back in 2002, when Allison Pearson’s bestselling debut, I Don’t Know How She Does It, was making women laugh with recognition at the sharp observations of her heroine Kate Reddy, a London investment manager with young children, a woman came up to Pearson at an event. “You think she’s got problems now?” she said to Pearson with a sly smile. “Wait ’til she’s got a teenager.”
“I literally didn’t know what she was talking about,” says Pearson, speaking from London, where she lives. “I thought, ‘Surely it’s going to get easier.’ ”
At the time, Pearson had cast aside the pressure to do a sequel, feeling that she’d said everything she had to say about being a working mom with little kids. But something about that woman’s smile always stayed with her.
“I guess my family got older, and I was seeing my friends and the different issues they were facing,” Pearson says. “I just felt this was a really different story to tell. Equally resonant, equally relevant, a story of aging plus having responsibilities upward and responsibilities downward.”
In How Hard Can It Be? (St. Martin’s, June), Pearson returns with a new chapter for Kate: now facing her 50th birthday, she’s trying to relaunch her career after years as a stay-at-home mom. She’s also trying to help her teenage daughter, Emily, navigate the pitfalls of adolescence while facing her own life changes. “I thought the idea that you would have a teenage girl who was going through puberty while the mother was going through menopause was one of God’s better jokes, really,” Pearson says.
Though Kate’s hormones are diving off a cliff, her trademark wit remains intact. She advises early on in the book, “If you’re thinking of [googling perimenopause], one word of advice. Don’t.” Struggling with lapses in recall, another symptom in a long and annotated list, she calls her memory “a dusty provincial library.”
Pearson doesn’t shy away from describing menopause in its sometimes-gory detail, a choice she made when she realized there was virtually no literature about this “huge phase.” “I thought I would become the Quentin Tarantino of menopause,” she says. “Get out there and spill some blood.”
In her usual fashion, Pearson uses humor to get at the kind of common experiences that women share but rarely feel comfortable discussing openly. And she notes that a lot of women are misdiagnosed as being depressed and take antidepressants when their symptoms are just the result of hormones kicking in. “It’s not the same,” Pearson says. “So I thought it would be good to get a kind of conversation going about this taboo. It made you laugh a bit, right?”
Kate’s efforts to get back in the workforce are played for laughs with a similar “underlying seriousness.” She edits her résumé, dropping details that would reveal her age and her “time out” from active employment. “It’s like, why don’t the skills that women acquire have any currency in the world?” Pearson asks. “To me it seems absolutely ridiculous and it feels wrong.”
And yet, there’s no denying that it happens all the time. A friend, whom Pearson tapped for details about Kate’s job in investments for the original novel, recounted that she met with a headhunter when she was planning a return and he told her, “Nothing you’ve done in the last seven years would be of any interest to any of my clients.” She rang up Pearson crying, just devastated. It went in the book. In How Hard Can It Be?, Kate eventually finds a position back at her old firm and the fund that she created—though following the passage of time and a financial crisis, there is no one at the firm who remembers her.
Pearson also calls on her experience as a journalist (she was a longtime columnist for the Daily Mail) for her source material. Parts of the novel began life as a column called “Sandwich Woman” for the Daily Telegraph. “So I’m just a cannibal,” she jokes. “I store away anecdotes that are either very poignant or very funny, and I gather them all up in a file and I make sure I put them in a book.”
Although Pearson is inclined to make people laugh, she says, “In literature you get marks deducted if you make people laugh—but if we don’t laugh about it, we cry. I think it’s not so much that, as that this stuff happens to everybody and can we just share this experience a little bit more?”
Pearson believes that laughter opens people up and that the experience of a comic novel is a generative experience. “They say, ‘Oh boy, you think that’s bad. You should hear what happened to me,’ ” she notes. “Everybody shares—so it feels like we’re not alone.”
Sometimes Pearson writes things without realizing she’s hit a nerve. Two close girlfriends read the manuscript, and afterward they both told Pearson they were lying about their age at work. “I had no idea—no idea,” Pearson says.
Revisiting Kate at this stage in her life also allows Pearson to explore issues facing the next generation of women. A side plot in the book involves Kate’s daughter and a “belfie” ( a “bottom selfie”; it features the buttocks) that goes viral at her school. Pearson is making a point about the impact of social media on young girls. She recognizes the “huge challenges” of parenting in the age of social media and a possible connection to the epidemics of anxiety and self-harm among young girls.
In How Hard Can It Be? Kate attempts to protect her daughter and at the same time discovers that her new position comes with plenty of pitfalls: she has to fend off pervy clients and put harassing coworkers in their place. “I know women who have had to put up with outrageous behavior,” Pearson says. “One very senior banker told me that men in the office would buy her vibrators. Very provocative, rude stuff.”
These episodes may face a different kind of scrutiny in the #MeToo era, but the book considers women like Kate who, Pearson says, “tough it out” as they come up through Wall Street and similar environments. She acknowledges that these situations exist in the workplace. “It feels like the book is arriving at a moment when these issues are really surging to the surface,” she says. The zeitgeist agrees: Made Up Stories, the company of Bruna Papandrea (the producer of Big Little Lies), has optioned the book for television.
“It feels like a really good time to bring Kate out into the world,” Pearson says. “It’s a hint to the incredible strength and resourcefulness of the middle-aged woman.”
By the novel’s end, Pearson has brought Kate from a place of dread and self-loathing to empowerment, to a place where she can say, “I didn’t succeed despite being 50. I succeeded because I brought everything I am and everything I know from being a parent and a child and an employee to the journey.”
Deborah Bander is a lawyer and freelance writer living in Brooklyn.