WHEN JANE JUSKA turned 50 in 1983 she weighed 106kg, partly the result of getting drunk every evening. And with a runaway son who dressed like a punk rocker, she lived in a house she couldn't afford and worked 60 hours a week. She hadn't had sex in 15 years, except with herself, an act she found more revolting with each 5kg addition to her 1.6-metre frame. Months before her 67th birthday, tired of being celibate and feeling bound for an early death, Juska placed a personal ad in the New York Review Of Books (NYRB). 'Before I turn 67, I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like,' the advertisement began. 'If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me.' Within a month of the ad appearing in the autumn of 1999, Juska received 63 responses from strangers all over the United States. She spent much of the next year following up the replies and ended up having a lot of sex with dozens of men, aged between 32 and 84. She recounts her sexual exploits in her first book, a hilarious and stimulating memoir appropriately titled A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures In Sex And Romance (US$24), published this summer by Villard Books. You'd be forgiven for thinking Juska is a slut - many people who attend her book readings think so, too. But Juska, a retired teacher from Berkeley, California, is a cultured, white-haired woman who teaches writing in prisons and whose passion for senior-citizen sex is matched only by her love for Anthony Trollope's novels and Napa Valley wines. On a balmy afternoon in Berkeley recently, she sat in a restaurant at the posh Claremont Resort and Spa, ruminating about her life. 'I remember I came here with my first man,' she says, sipping a glass of sauvignon blanc. 'I looked out this window and saw my old friend Bill playing tennis. My yoga teacher walked past me. I thought to myself, 'Here I am living this secret life and my real life is right here in front of me'.' That Juska is frank and down to earth is evident from her book's title. After all 'round-heeled' is an old-fashioned slang expression for a promiscuous woman. At first glance, hers appears to be a book about wanton eroticism - 'Do you think you're a nymphomaniac?' reads the very first sentence - and indeed a strong current of sexuality runs through much of the narrative. But Round-Heeled is also a book about the failure of love; that modern-day malady poets and philosophers despair of ever fixing. Juska grew up in a farming town of 1,234 people in Ohio, where her parents never talked about the things she would later love in life: books, music and conversation. Talk of sex was absent, too, and Juska never saw her parents so much as touch each other. She married early - only to find that she had nothing in common with her husband except their mutual love of American football. Juska was emotionally unfulfilled, although she readily admits she wasn't the best wife either, getting drunk every evening on cognac. Yet it wasn't until she retired from 33 years of teaching English at a Berkeley high school that Juska felt the full force of loneliness and lack of love. 'Retirement is a very serious step,' she says. 'When the high drama of high school is over, what are you going to do?' Juska's methodical search for sex was inspired by Autumn Tale, a film by Eric Rohmer in which a female character places an ad in a newspaper on behalf of her middle-aged friend. Walking back home one night after seeing the film, Juska mentally composed the ad she would herself place. That Juska chose the high-brow NYRB is telling not just about the author but about the popular culture surrounding her. 'Smart people read the paper and I didn't want to bother with somebody who wasn't smart,' says Juska. In an age where personal ads are often crude, pretentious and peppered with dehumanising acronyms, Juska's prose was direct, lucid and honest. Indeed it was, as one commentator noted, 'a kind of poetry unto itself'. One of this book's central messages is that leading a secret life - or at least plunging into it - can be a most delightful experience. Juska, for example, writes that she 'felt terrific, walked taller and looked people in the eye, in the face, in the crotch, anywhere I felt like looking', just after she e-mailed her ad to the NYRB. 'My secret - wanting sex with a man I liked - was no longer a secret, it was no longer dirty, never had been really, it was no longer just mine. I had broadcast an essential truth to the world and I felt terrifically clean and sort of proud.' More importantly, Juska felt in control of her life for the first time. She had taken an exceedingly bold risk, but that was precisely the point. The sense of control - of power - was also manifested in subtle ways in Juska's regular life. On Fridays she drove to the local office of Planned Parenthood, where she volunteered as an abortion escort, a practice, she knew fully well, that was pregnant with the possibility of confrontation with pro-life activists. 'What would these sanctimonious anti-abortion demonstrators think if they knew what I had done?' she writes. 'Would they repaint their signs with me as their target? What would my students think? In my college class? In my prison class? And my friends? Would they remain my friends?' From the very start, Juska had a feeling that her ad would get an answer, if not many. But she was also prepared for disappointment: 'If I got none, the important part for me was that I did it, that I advertised myself without shame, without remorse, without a shade of embarrassment.' As it turned out, on November 8, 1999, the NYRB sent her 12 letters in a manila envelope, the first instalment of replies. Juska's hands shook, her mouth turned dry, she feared she would be castigated by her neighbours any moment. But the business of opening letters, too, offered ample scope for control. 'I took a nasty pleasure from zinging unsuitable letters onto the 'no' pile,' the author writes. 'Oh, the power with glory not far behind.' Still, the no pile was tiny, topped by this specimen: 'Call me at the office, Monday through Thurs, 9-5.' Juska, who turned 70 in March, offers a sharp and insightful commentary on the desires and fears of men. One of the respondents, she writes, had an irresistible address (New York City's Gramercy Park) but Juska didn't like this sentence: 'I'm 72 and very horny.' Horny, writes Juska, is a word she never developed a fondness for. 'It did its job when Shakespeare used it to designate a cuckold. But people didn't use it in that way any more, and it had an ugly sound to it,' she writes. Besides: 'Horns could hurt.' Old age was never Juska's basis for rejecting a suitor, even though, as she pointedly puts it, 'That's exactly the basis on which I have been rejected many times.' Neither were vitality and youth criteria for selection, as 38-year-old 'Rob' must have discovered - he sent a photograph of himself, fully nude except for a pair of sunglasses balanced on his nose. Peeking at the photograph through her fingers, Juska turned it over to find several small cards attached underneath. On them, Rob had printed, in blue ballpoint ink, a poem Juska thinks was undeniably his own: 'Old people are rude, obnoxious, pathetic and gross / But the guts you displayed I dig the most / Your notice is actually rather romantic / What is your strategy? (to make my pants frantic).' An adventure such as Juska's is bound to have its share of bizarre moments, so it's no surprise that one of the men she slept with stole her underwear, another her champagne glass. 'I think they wanted souvenirs,' she reckons. A third fellow, described in the book as a retired, 70-year-old medical-school professor, encourages her into an intimate romance but later backs away. Juska fell in love with the man, whom, she says, was 'very good at touching - there's something very human about just needing to be touched''. At the time, Juska was seeing two other men, and the professor fully approved of it. He never told her why he had lost interest in the relationship. She made three five-hour flights to visit the man in New York, each time at his invitation. On each return flight, she wrote non-stop about her experiences and feelings in her journal, which, she says, 'is where this book came from'. Juska, who has been part of a writing group for 15 years, initially considered writing a novel because she thought nobody would believe her story otherwise. One of her suitors persuaded her to write a memoir instead. Juska took a sabbatical from her teaching and began writing an average of seven hours a day, finishing the first draft in little under a year. It wasn't an easy exercise. She wrote to one of her suitors, saying: 'I cannot do this. He wrote back to say you must do it and I did.' Round-Heeled Woman is already in its fourth printing, and at one point it jumped to No 15 in the Amazon sales ranking. There has been interest in adapting the book for the stage, and several TV producers are in talks to buy the rights. Meanwhile, the book is stirring interest in just about every town where American baby boomers such as Juska are quietly ageing. Of all the men Juska met, her favourite is someone half her age. She calls him Graham, an 'old soul in a young body', who was terrific in bed as well as a wonderful all-round companion. Oddly, this man is also the reason why Juska has attracted the ire of many Americans. At a reading in Berkeley a few weeks ago, the author announced that the men she met and has written about ranged in age from their early 30s. Referring to Juska's youngest lover, one woman said: 'He must have been short and ugly.' When Juska replied that he was in fact tall and handsome, another woman responded: 'Then what would he want with you?' Women have been particularly harsh on Juska, and the reason is no mystery to her. 'When they hear what I've done, the question that unbidden comes to them is, 'What have I done with my life?' And lots of people at my age don't want to go back and look at it. That's why they're so nuts about their grandchildren. It keeps the focus off them.' Juska has no desire to marry any of her suitors, even though she still has an active relationship with at least three of them, including Graham. 'If I got married, I would have to give up a lot - the other men,' she says. A man from New England wrote to her recently, saying he wasn't interested in being taken care of or taking care of anyone. Juska replied: 'I could really use a person who irons.'