Ms. Alter, Ms. Gilbert and Ms. Powell all seem to have created the perfect marriage between classic recovery memoir and stunty, yearlong-experiment book. This latter has become a formidable cottage industry in recent years—a fact especially baffling in light of how narrowly defined its formal properties are. Which is to say, while there have probably been no more than 50 books that fall under the “year’s experiment” umbrella, the number is still pretty staggering given that they are all variations on the same simple conceit.
The contemporary pioneer of the genre, by most accounts, is Esquire writer A. J. Jacobs, who has contributed two emblematic titles to the canon: first The Know It All (2005), in which he spends a year reading every volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and then The Year of Living Biblically (2007), in which he spends a year following every rule in the Bible literally. There’s also Danny Wallace’s Yes Man (2005), in which the author says yes to every offer and opportunity that comes his way and documents the crazy hijinks that ensue, and Maria Dahvana Headley’s similar but different The Year of Yes (2006), in which the author agrees to go out with any single guy who asks her on a date. Judith Levine’s My Year Without Shopping (2006) covers exactly what you’d think. Barbara Kingsolver has contributed Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (2007), and Sara Bongiorni the book A Year Without ‘Made in China’ (2007).
The list goes on! There are a lot of things one can do or not do for a year.
Perhaps inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 memoir Walden, in which the transcendentalist roughed it in a cabin for two years, the genre has become about as fashionable in our post-Super Size Me world as the micro-history was about a decade ago (Remember Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World?) If you’re feeling ungenerous, many of the books that fall within this genre can seem like cheap gimmicks, allowing those who lack vision or a compelling life story to score a book contract and publicity in exchange for time and a willingness to suffer. After all, what is The Year of Living Biblically if not a Jackass-style stunt crossed with the whimsy of a Liar Liar-era Jim Carrey movie?
The future looks bright, meanwhile, for Ms. Alter’s book, which will be published in July as Up for Renewal. “We sent it out for blurbs, and Carolyn Parkhurst”—author of Dogs of Babel and Lost and Found—“said something that I thought was so dead-on,” Ms. Hendricks said. “She said that it was like a fairy tale masquerading as a memoir of self-improvement.”
Ms. Hendricks thinks Up for Renewal could potentially do even better than Eat, Pray, Love. “Most people cannot take a year off of their lives and travel to Italy, India and Indonesia,” she said, referring to the cheeky “I”-themed itinerary that Ms. Gilbert followed in her journey. “Why that struck such a cord with so many people, I don’t know. I think more people can pick up a magazine—that’s much more accessible than picking up and traveling.”
365 Days of Despair
Ms. Alter, of course, is not the only one to swim in the cool wake of Eat, Pray, Love. Indeed, she is just one of several women who have attempted to deal with a large-scale personal crisis by channeling their despair into a book project.
For Charla Muller, whose book 365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy comes out in July, the crisis came with the birth of her daughter, whose demands made her and her husband, in their 10th year of marriage, start feeling more like roommates than lovers.
“She found that the tension of not having sex with her husband, of finding ways to avoid it, was really stressing them both out,” said Sharon Bowers, Ms. Muller’s agent. “They might be snuggling on the couch in front of the TV, and instead of lying there and enjoying it, she’d think, ‘Oh, God, does this mean he’s gonna want to have sex?’”
So, on her husband’s 40th birthday, Ms. Muller decided to, uh, take action, and declared her intention to have sex with him every day for the next year, regardless of whether the two of them were in the mood.
“She realized that she could probably count the number of times they’d had sex in a year on one hand,” said Andie Avila, who acquired Ms. Muller’s book for the Berkley imprint of Penguin Group USA during the 11th month of the experiment. “And in an effort to find that emotional connection through a physical one, she decided to go ahead and do this in a big way. She considered a week, a month, but decided that a year would be most challenging and would allow for a lasting change in their lives. And a lasting change takes a while to achieve.”
Ms. Avila added: “A year is something people can easily imagine, anything less or more might not be as easy to mark. A year is a cycle that people can work with.”
And why is that? What’s so appealing about a year?
For Noelle Oxenhandler, who will publish The Wishing Year: An Experiment in Desire in July, timing was crucial, as her experiment began just as she turned 50. Her book chronicles a year that involved Ms. Oxenhandler suspending her Buddhism-bred skepticism about “the power of wishing” in order to see if she could get a new house, a new love and a resolution to some spiritual turmoil she suffered at her Zen Center in Northern California.
“The notion of a year is very organically rooted in all of us,” Ms. Oxenhandler said. “I think there’s a way in which all of us have at least some tendency, each year, to feel some aspiration to renewal, to try living in a different way. This is simply a more explicit and committed way of doing that. … It’s serious because a year’s commitment is serious, but it’s also playful.”