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In 2011, The Atlantic asked Kate Bolick to write a cover story about how men's declining economic prospects had changed the dating and marriage market. "I turned it into a story about the rise of the single person," Bolick says over the phone, "and how it's a growing demographic" – in 2013, 53 per cent of American women were unmarried, up from a low of 17 per cent in 1960.

Women Bolick's age, 42 (and my age, and still), grew up with conflicting messages about partnership. Older, wiser women, who married in the sixties and seventies, urged us to put ourselves before romance, but the stories we heard as kids ended happily with a marriage. There were few decent models for being female, single and over 30, far fewer that didn't presume all women to be straight, cisgender and white. Partnering hastily is unwise, but being alone is often made to seem like a nightmare. So Bolick's first book, Spinster, asks a follow-up question: How do we build a life alone?

Spinster aims to destigmatize the single woman, at a time when her numbers are increasing, and to show her possibilities for happiness, which are many. (Desperate loneliness isn't necessarily worse than desperate claustrophobia, which is far from the worst thing you could go through as a wife or girlfriend.) But single women could use better templates than Eleanor Abernathy (the lady who throws cats at Lisa Simpson), and we all need to adapt our notions of companionship – to learn to recognize connection where we find it, romantically and otherwise.

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Bolick writes about herself, though the book is not about her. She discusses her personal life, but focuses more on those writers whose lives and ideas shaped her self-image. She calls them her "five awakeners": Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edith Wharton, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Neith Boyce and Maeve Brennan, a New Yorker staff writer who was both glamorous and self-sufficient, and whose perspective was "as clear and contained as an ice cube." In her 20s, Bolick "wore her point of view like a pair of borrowed glasses."

The book has been gestating for more than a decade, and in 2006, Bolick, then in her early 30s, tried in earnest to write about her relationships to these women. The concept never quite gelled. "I was just too young and too close to the material – I didn't have any perspective on my own life yet. It was too scary; I still didn't know if my life was going to turn out to be a disaster." In hindsight, her life was turning out just fine: She tended close friendships, kept a lively social routine and kept her chin up through the indignities of dating; she built a great career as a freelance writer and went on to a high-powered editorial job at a Condé Nast magazine.

The Atlantic cover found her looking underwhelmed, but in the piece she seemed happy. After it was published, Bolick heard from all kinds of women – those her age and older wrote in to thank her for validating their experience (they were happily single and sick of having to prove it) or for helping them feel less alone (they were lonely). Younger women sometimes wrote in for guidance, "like, 'Here's the situation – I live with my boyfriend, and I'm really ambivalent, what do you think I should do?' As if they were writing in to an advice column."

Reporting the story had widened her perspective – she could place herself, and the women who inspired her, within a deeper social and historical groove. It also gave her a position. "It sounds really corny, but I really thought of all these women I was hearing from as little sisters," she says. "And I'm a big sister now, and I could inhabit the authority of a big sister in a way that felt comfortable to me. I am not a polemicist, I am not interested in that kind of posture, personally, it's not something that I respond to. But I love being a big sister to my little brother, and I love talking with younger women."

Spinster is not a statement about how we live now, but something more intimate and conversational – Bolick wanted to do for her readers what her "awakeners" did for her. "My hope is that the reader will create a conversation with the book that exists inside of her," Bolick says. "She'll have a conversation with the book, and a conversation with herself, much in the way that I had been conversing with these women that I write about, in my own mind."

Spinsterdom, in the remodelled sense of the word, is less about solitude than honouring a wider range of relationships. ("I found that by remaining single, by not cordoning myself off into a little cul-de-sac with one other person, by necessity I've had to make friends," Bolick says.) Whether you're single or not, fulfilment depends on the quality of your bonds – on real relationships, but also imaginary ones, with the people you allow into your mind.

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