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3.9 out of 5 stars
3.9 out of 5 stars
The Stranger in the Mirror: A Memoir of Middle Age
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on 7 November 2011
There are books you love and books you wish you'd written, and this is one of the latter. I am deeply jealous that Shilling (like me, a journalist, but more successful) wrote this book before I had a chance to, or even thought to. Parts of it are wince-making as you recognise yourself; parts are laugh-out-loud funny; parts unbearably sad. I read it over the course of two days and now that I've finished I have that rather bereft feeling you get at the end of a good novel. I shall certainly pass it among friends, but not until I've read it once more myself. Shilling does not work to make herself likeable in this book, which is admirable - her honesty can at times be very painful, but I am sure that every British woman in mid-life will see herself reflected in these pages.
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on 15 December 2013
Jane Shilling has a go at describing the challenges she faces in 'middle-age' and analyses them for the benefit of her peers. As usual her analysis is as honest as she is able to achieve. She is not one to flinch from reality. Like the late, great, Alan Coren, she can see the humour in most situations; is unflinching in her willingness to offer herself up for ridicule and can then catch-out the reader with some sudden, incisive, observation, drawn from the humour, which is a true reflection of our own condition.
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on 8 January 2014
I do object to having to write something after I have rated a product. I have expressed my opinion by rating it haven't I?
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on 6 June 2011
I found this book gave an amazing insight into the mind of a woman of my age and helped me to come to terms with a number of issues. I particularly found Jane's changing relationship with her son useful as I have two sons of my own. As other readers have found Jane does 'jump' about but I found reading a chapter at a time rather than trying to read it in one marathon session made it easier to absorb.
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on 22 February 2011
My sister in law had just put this book down and I picked it up out of interest.
It soon had me spellbound. The book is in effect an extended essay and not a word is wasted. As others have said Ms Shilling is a superb writer and her views on the ageing process are all too true and full of insight whether you be a woman or a man.
I have been wandering around with the book and quoting parts of it to friends. I am very glad that in an idle moment I picked this book up
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on 18 March 2011
The Times is the poorer without Jane Shilling's writing, so I was delighted to read the glowing reviews of this excellent, thoughtful book. First rate book club material and a difficult task accomplished with brio. Reflective rather than dispiriting, it deserves a wide readership and excellent sales.
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on 16 June 2011
I was given this book as a present, because it's about middle age. I think I am its target reader.

It wasn't an easy read. I don't mean that in the sense that James Joyce isn't an easy read, or even in the sense that Lolita isn't. It's not the subject matter (I am probably not alone in finding material that so nearly reflects my own situation fascinating) nor the style or structure that's challenging. It's more about how much, and how little, she describes of herself.

A review in Mslexia Magazine commented that the book was too objective and impersonal. I disagree. The style is rather distancing, certainly. It's also prone to metaphor and at times affected. Describing the years 20 to 50, she writes: "Time passes, the seasons turn, the river flows idly; distracted by duty and business we fail to remark a quickening of the current...Then we look up and see that the landscape has altered...the tide has swept us downstream."

But the way she rails at her poor singleton son, at his lax approach to his orthodontistry, admitting her continuing sense of ownership over his body; her shame and titillation at the prospect of being taken seriously as a sexual partner; her solipsistic observations on how and why she remains single, are unbearably exposing. And through her courage we are ambushed into a reflection of these same questions in our own lives.

Shilling isn't likeable in this book. She expects uncomfortably much from her son; she moans on about the drudgery of housework - that's fair enough, none of us actually like it, but with Shilling, not liking housework becomes pathological. "Angry reproaches fell from my lips like the toads and serpents from the mouth of the wicked sister in the Grimms' fairy tale. And I blamed my son for this, as well. I wasn't a harridan by nature, I screamed. It was he who was turning me into one with his contempt for my standards, my wish to live with a degree of grace, to keep our small shared space clean and orderly." But it's impossible not to admire the degree to which she allows herself to be unlikeable.

It's difficult to have sympathy with her self-professed feminism too. She reports having delivered "a stinging feminist lecture on the exploitation of women" and then "picking up one [her son's] lads' mags and discovered that half these semi-naked girls were enthusiastic volunteers, rather than professional glamour models. So now I wasn't quite so sure of my position on naked breasts, especially not the ones belonging to Readers' Girlfriends". Let me get this right - glamour models posing in magazines in return for money - bad; readers bragging pictures of their girlfriends, for free, good. Really?

As I said, it's a book that is sometimes hard to read, but it takes off and justifies itself in the last couple of chapters. Shilling's columnist contract has ended, she hasn't made financial provision, she is a fifty year old woman with the best part of her working life behind her, she doesn't know where to go, what to do next, and her son is still her dependent. Now the crisis of middle age is given meaning; as her place in the grand scheme makes her invisible, so she must get out there,; when her biology suggests it's time to quieten down, worldly necessity thrusts her back into the maelstrom. She puts a sweetly brave face on it, chin-up she tells herself, as she contemplates her melancholy calculation. "Time passes no more swiftly than it did when I was young, but I am haunted by the sense of how little of it is left." That's it, that's the point.
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on 29 November 2011
the book meandered around on every subject under the sun, including her childhood, her parent's childhood, horses, work, and only a small part really was how middle age really affected her, so disappointing for me. i felt it was more of a general autobiography than specifically how she dealt with middle age. i don't want to overly-criticise the book but i am at a loss to explain all the fantastic reviews from fellow-journalists, and here on Amazon. so i hope this provides some balance.

one thing i disliked was her limited vision of womanhood represented by herself. though this is a personal account, not "everywoman", i still found the privilege seeping through suffocating. she seemed to assume everywoman has "done" work and motherhood in the middle-class way she has (i find this constantly annoying in these kind of books). has she ever met childless women, for example? obviously they don't exist in her world. there were some insights occasionally but the general tone and context felt pretty miserable to me, for no explicit reasons, which i found perplexing.

there are moments and paragraphs where you can see her candid, steely writing and observational skills, but it didn't really address the topics i would like to have seen addressed more honestly - instead a fey kind of observational style that was sometimes engaging but often obtuse (perhaps a need to protect her private life).

also the whole book just jumped around completely in a scattered way. often paragraphs seemed completely disconnected and often it was impossible to know what, if anything, she was trying to say. why the naked picture of herself on the cover, unnecessary, self-adulating, sets the tone of the book?
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on 25 March 2011
I am absolutely loving this book. I've already been back to the beginning and started again, so densely packed is the writing that, if you are just reading to turn the page, you miss an awful lot.

Jane's writing is pure mental nourishment, (hence the title of my review). Unlike all the flakey articles about aging gracefully, applying face creams, and the inevitable Botox, Jane tells it as it is, but in the most incredible detail. She spends whole pages analysing her reactions to things, which, as I am about the same age, and have a similar educational background, are just meat and drink to me.

Jane has already saved my marriage. She writes that a "Happiness is a gift, but composure can be learned." Remembering this, I exercised the composure muscles, and defused a potentially marriage-wrecking row, by remaining calm.

This is such a refreshing change from most women's writing. For example, unlike the classic ghastly feminists, Germaine Greer and Simone de Beauvoir to name but two, Jane has actually had a child, and brought him up alone, successfully.

She doesn't moan much (probably because she has never had to live with a husband).

She does go on about clothes a little bit too long (a whole chapter). Clothes have never interested me that much, but I do remember her lovely articles in The Times on the subject, so I realise it is one very dear to her.

A great read, albeit quite highbrow. (I had to get out my Oxford English Dictionary at one point!)
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on 19 June 2015
The subject of the book interested me: I am a woman in London experiencing middle age, like so many others. What is truly stunning is how rarely Shilling includes us in her "quest to understand" the challenges of ageing. Instead it's one supercilious woman's long-winded exhibition of anger and narcissism. Self-critique in her mind reads like an act of great generosity to the rest of us. Her editor might have wanted to remind her that ALL women who reach middle age go through menopause. Fortunately, Shilling has gathered together fine insights from canonical writers, and at times, her own analyses ring true. That said, unless you're the type of person who enjoys the company of a self-admiring egotist determined to take her adolescent grandiosity to the grave, forget this one.
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