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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

BooksFebruary 21, 2024

Painful melancholy: A menopause reading list

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Books editor and potential perimenopauser Claire Mabey compiles a reading list for midlife hormonal help.

A clip of Olivia Colman praising the c-word as her “favourite swear word” went viral recently. Watching the red carpet interview, with her luscious smile and sparkly teeth, her name-check of Chaucer and her Hollywood glamour, I felt (and saw via Instagram stories) women all over the internet fall even further in love with the already beloved actor.

I’ve long thought that swearing is fantastic, but even as a frequent swearer I still feel a sting of regret (occasionally, and very small) when I let rip in certain company. Witnessing Colman’s comfort, and clear enjoyment, of the act of swearing forced me to interrogate that small sting of shame. I realised it derives from a long-ingrained idea of not-supposed-to, not out of this polite lady mouth. Colman’s declaration that the c-word is “the best one” affirmed that there comes a time where you can stop giving a shit. You can own the words, the ways of being, and behaving. That time could be said to coincide with middle age and the physiological transformation that occurs at that time for half (and some) of the planet.

The medical system is not renowned for its approach to women’s health. When I started to have a series of symptoms that felt irritatingly familiar in a PMS/puberty kind of way, yet also wildly new, it wasn’t to my GP that I turned in an attempt to discover what this might mean. It was to other women who I knew were deep in perimenopause or happily out the other side. Women have, since forever, been creating their own forums, systems and methods of disseminating knowledge. Thankfully for me, I’m entering perimenopause in an age of flourishing women-led conversation and writing about the “second puberty” (at age 39, this includes, for me, incessant sore boobs, brain fades (like, words will just drop away from me mid-sentence), severe bouts of rage, whacko periods, headaches that go with the sore boobs, and a melancholy that comes and goes with the sore boobs and the headaches).

The following list is a series of most-recommended books compiled alongside advice from menopause maven Sarah Connor of Menopause with Martinis “a midlife version of an antenatal group”. Disclaimer: over the course of researching what’s out there in terms of books about menopause I found very little in the way of indigenous perspectives and practices. I do want to point out the transformative research and resources from Dr Ngahuia Murphy who has worked to illuminate menstruation in pre-colonial Aotearoa. You can listen to Dr Murphy on the Nuku podcast here, and buy her books Te Awe Atua, here; and Waiwhero, here

New Zealand books

Don’t Sweat It by Nicky Pellegrino

I’ve long been a fan of Nicky Pellegrino’s novels that celebrate women, friends, romance, food, escape and sadness (sometimes: sadness comes with the territory of love, health and happiness). But Pellegrino has also been writing health columns for years (most recently for The Listener). Don’t Sweat It draws on both her knack for funny, fluid prose and her ability to unpack complex science. The book is pitched as a guide to considering menopause in terms of positive change. The tone is conspiratorial and warm: you’re being guided through the various fuckeries by a friend who has talked with and gathered experiences from other women (some of whom had a hell of a time, others for whom perimenopause was a smoother process).

This Changes Everything by Niki Bezzant

This book is a straight-up, easy to read guide to symptoms (she lists 43 of them: tick, tick, tick), the treatments and the sheer breadth of womens’ experiences. Bezzant goes deeper into the science (compared with Pellegrino) and covers early menopause, HRT, MHT and other treatments, periods, hot flushes, night sweats, heart palps, body transformations, migraine, sex, digestion, sleep, booze, nutrition and menopause in the workplace (where mostly it’s still a “let’s pretend it doesn’t exist so as not to make the menfolk uncomfortable” sort of situation).

Former Spinoff books editor Catherine Woulfe reviewed both Pellegrino’s and Bezzant’s books and found herself both buoyed and enraged. Buoyed because both books enable self education about what is coming; rage because that same information has been carved off and locked in the taboo cupboard by misogyny, leaving generations of women in a state of dissonance with their own bodies. “Could the medical system not do the womaning up, for once?” 

Covers of two books on red ovoid background
Design: Tina Tiller

Hormone Repair Manual by Lara Briden

This is the book most recommended to me by friends who are going through or have come out the other side of menopause. When I started reading it, in a trepidatious search to try and figure out if my symptoms were connected to perimenopause or not, I got an overwhelming sense of shame-rage at how little, once again, I know about how my body works (see also: pregnancy, childbirth and preeclampsia; a story for another day). Briden makes sure you understand what hormones you have, what they do, and how their fluctuations during perimenopause and menopause affect your body and mind. You can download the first couple of chapters (if you also sign up for emails) from Briden’s website. 

International books

The Menopause Manifesto by Dr Jen Gunter

This is the second-most recommended book in my growing stash. As indicated by the title this is a staunch, rage-spurred treatise that dispels myths and shame rhetorics about peri/menopause and replaces it with facts, evidence-based reviews of treatment, and discussion of the evolutionary benefits of menopause. Gunter takes apart the language, too, suggesting that we’d never define the latter stages of a man’s life as as “erectopause”. There’s an excellent interview on RNZ between Gunter and Kim Hill in which they tackle the problematisation of menopause: “Women are gaslit into believing that their bodies are problematic, so they get marketed or huge range of things to try to get rid of those ‘problems’.” 

The Menopause Brain by Dr Lisa Mosconi

Dr Lisa Mosconi is a neuroscientist and this book is a brilliantly insightful and satiating for those who want to get right into what the hell is happening to the brain when the hormones go through this dramatic ebb and flow. Here’s the blurb: “As a leading neuroscientist and women’s brain health specialist, Dr Mosconi unravels these mysteries by revealing how menopause doesn’t just impact the ovaries – it’s a hormonal show in which the brain takes centre stage. The decline of the hormone estrogen during menopause influences everything from body temperature to mood to memory, potentially paving the way for cognitive decline later in life. To conquer these challenges successfully, Dr Mosconi brings us the latest approaches – explaining the role of cutting-edge hormone replacement therapies like “designer estrogens,” hormonal contraception, and key lifestyle changes encompassing diet, exercise, self-care, and self-talk.”

Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the vindication of natural life by Darcey Steinke

This memoir is a recommendation from Sarah Connor of Menopause with Martinis. For Steinke, perimenopause was hard going and fraught with the most excruciating symptoms (insomnia, depression). The book is an exploration of her experience alongside the culture of silence around menopause that she encountered. The reviews are rapturous:

“I hope that Steinke’s book, which I consumed hungrily, will encourage a wave of work by and about women undergoing what is, quite literally, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Steinke makes the case that the inexorable slide away from fertility is a rebirth of agency, and her book is the fruit of the very creativity it describes.” (Sarah Manguso, The New Yorker)

“An incandescent account of menopause . . . luxuriates in a sense of gender as fluid, a hormonal tide between two poles, along which we all bob and drift, sometimes making drastic crossings and sometimes remaining tethered in place.” (Olivia Laing, The Guardian)

Image: Archi Banal


In 2023, Lisa Allardice wrote an article for the Guardian titled All the rage: the rise of the menopause novel. In the manner common to this whole subject arena, it’s both an enraging and inspiring read. I encourage you to take a look if only to catch and pocket more gems like this one from our Queen Marian Keyes: “I think we’ve become more confident in realising that the world was constructed by men to suit men … If men had the menopause they would be given 10 years off work, from the ages of 45 to 55, on full pay. And then once they had transitioned into the Great Wise Age there would be a massive party and they would be revered. Instead we are mocked.”

The intricacies of women’s experience at the point of middle age is being turned into creative fodder and we’re all the better for it. Below is a selection of novels that, while are not explicitly about menopause, explore the experiences of women over 40.

Lioness by Emily Perkins

In this entertaining, deep-thinking novel from one of our best writers, Therese Thorn has a mid-life transformation with the help of fellow middle-aged woman, Clare. It’s not exactly a crisis but a reckoning. A rewilding. There’s shucking of shame, there’s a peer at the misogyny of capitalism and there’s personal mistakes. But there’s also empowerment, and change, and a renewal of self expectation, and expectations of the world and what it does and does not owe you. I reviewed the book in more detail, here.

Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman

When I was menopause-clueless I didn’t read novels about women in middle age in the way that I do now (I’m on the cusp of 39 with perimenopause symptoms and rage levels that marry happily with a lower tolerance for the patriarchy). I read Ducks, Newburyport when it came out in 2019 and was up for the Booker Prize. It’s a wild ride, a 1000-page immersion in the mind of an American woman, a mother, a political citizen, an observer, a reveller in the absurdities and joys of language, a cancer patient, a person of passions, and wants, and humour and intelligence. Picking it up again now (thanks to Allardice’s article) I see it in a totally new light. There is a multiplicity and a ferocity and a sageness about the point of view that coincides with this concept of middle age: at once powerless (the book is set in the age of Trump and the narrator is anxious about that violence in her world) and empowered (she’s so sharp, so funny, so capable and expanded with the sheer volume of what she has achieved, and is carrying all at once, in her life so far). 

Again, Rachel by Marian Keyes

Keyes, now 60, has long been on the side of women as whole and complex human beings with sexual selves even, shock horror, as we age: “As a menopausal woman, I like banging the drum for the idea that we don’t all wither when we are 37,” Keyes says. “I write about women being sexual past the watershed of 40, when we are supposed to shut up shop.” Her latest novel, Again, Rachel is the sequel to the beloved 1999 novel Rachel’s Holiday. It centres on the rich and complicated lives of middle aged, and older, women with customary depth, wit and a lightness of touch that propels sales into the million plus club. 

The above books can be purchased and ordered from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland, or borrowed from your local library.

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