SPINSTER: Making a Life of One's Own, by Kate Bolick. Crown, 308 pp., $26.

Kate Bolick has always enjoyed being alone. While peers fantasized about the married life, she set out to become a writer -- and a financially independent one at that.

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Bolick knows how marriage can threaten the building of a rich personal life. Her mother's career started only after raising children, and was cut short again by breast cancer. Bolick began questioning the assumed order of a woman's existence: "You are born, you grow up, you become a wife. But what if it wasn't this way?"

In "Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own," Bolick, a contributing editor at The Atlantic magazine, examines why so many American women are choosing to stay single. Her goal: follow the evolution of the term "spinster" and embrace it as part of her own modern identity. After losing her mother, Bolick had to search elsewhere for female guides; unsurprisingly, she found them in books. Her five "awakeners" -- New Yorker writer Maeve Brennan, Vogue columnist Neith Boyce, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, social reformer and writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, novelist Edith Wharton -- all defied convention; delaying marriage, living alone, practicing free love.

While Bolick turns to the rose-colored worlds of Victorian novels and early-20th century poetry to consider the single woman -- a feminine image that can feel distant -- she offers statistics that pack a punch: 34 percent of American women were single in 1890, 17 percent in 1960, reaching a high of 53 percent in 2013. Yet, "though marriage [is] no longer compulsory," she writes, "we [continue] to organize our lives around it, unchallenged."

Bolick, despite her fondness for solitude, is also a serial monogamist who thrives on social interaction. Her relationships, both platonic and romantic, are integral to who she is. But does that make her a failure at being single? There's solace in the fact that none of her awakeners fit the traditional connotation of spinsterhood, either. Each ended up marrying, retaining their independence in a variety of ways.

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Bolick turns to Brennan to describe her "feared self" -- ending up completely alone, a bag lady, "living proof of what it means to not be loved." But being loved isn't just a matter of male affection. The whole point, Bolick finds, is to give careful thought to what happiness means at the individual level: "Being single is like being an artist . . . because it requires the same close attention to one's singular needs, as well as the will and focus to fulfill them." Bolick's intimate exploration of spinsterhood celebrates the courage of defining for oneself what it means to be happy.