A couple of weeks ago, Penguin Random House
(love them forever) sent me a copy of this book to review:
They also sent me a copy of THE BURIED GIANT, which is wildly (ha) different from the book above and which–embarrassed face–I’m still trying to get through. I don’t know why I’m having such a hard time with it, except to say that I used to inhale books back in the day and now I find it all so much more difficult. Harder to devote my attention, harder to really get swept away by a narrative. I don’t know what that means.
Am I still even a book lover? Has that changed too, along with so many other things?
Or maybe I’m just a slower reader, now, than I used to be. Maybe I’m making a big deal out of things that just have tiny, simple, almost-invisible answers. I don’t know.
I haven’t followed the press around THE WILD OATS PROJECT all that much, though I’ve noticed, predictably, that Rinaldi has gotten some flak, both around the decision to write about her marriage and the decision to have an open marriage at all. The reviews that had flak came from men, which I found interesting. (Two reviews is not an exhaustive list and it’s just chance and the magic of Google that made me click on those two, so that is not really meant to be a conclusive statement about the differences in approach between male/female reviewers. I’m sure there are female reviewers out there too who had issues–some judgmental, some not–about the book.)
In brief: TWOP is the story of a woman who, upon discovering that her husband most definitely does not want to have children, decides to embark on an open marriage. If I’m not going to have children, she writes at the beginning of the book, I’m going to have lovers. And so they rattle out the terms of their agreement–she obtains an apartment in the city where she lives and has lovers during the week, and then returns to her husband on weekends–and then she moves out and gets to it, and the year that follows chronicles what happens to her, her marriage, and her life as a result of the project.
There’s lots of sex, and lots of truly excellent writing. I lugged it with me to work and flaunted the dust jacket. It also goes deeper, both in ways that you expect and in ways you don’t. Because of course it’s about the sex. Of course.
It’s also, in so many ways, about so much more than that.
I’ve often wondered how it is that certain books come to you at certain points in your life. Some of it–all of it?–of course, is happenstance. You pick up a book at the store because you like the cover. You read a blurb in a magazine and seek the book out the next time you’re at the library. Your friend tells you about author such-and-such when you are twelve or sixteen or twenty or eighty-three. You bring all of what you have to the book at the moment when you open it, regardless of what age. You read and you agree or you disagree, and maybe if you’d read it a little earlier or a little later you’d think a little differently. Who knows.
What would I have thought, if I’d picked up this book at the age of, say, twenty-three? I don’t know. I suspect I’d have approached it a la the judgy reviewers that I’ve read. What is this woman doing, how could she do that to her marriage, how could she possibly think this is okay. Or something.
Funny to read it now, though, and just think, that’s so interesting. Look at the jumps that other people take in their lives. Look at what they do. How much they hurt. How much they long for. How much they need.
I’m taking a break from Twitter in April. (A break-ish, because I’ll still be tweeting from the Big Truths
account during AWP
.) I have been struggling for so many months now and it’s so hard to not want to say negative things all of the time. Why am I so sad. Why can’t I be happy. Why can’t I get excited. Why am I not writing. Why why why.
I need to step away, to remember what writing into the void feels like. Writing and working without knowing if anything you do is ever going to see the rest of the world. Just wanting to make the work be the thing.
I thought for a long time that that was so easy. Wasn’t writing the only thing I’d wanted to with my whole life? Didn’t I love it, the flow of ideas, the sitting down and disappearing into Somewhere Else? But then last year arrived, and with it all of its realities–this is your job now, this is what it feels like, these months and months of work with only a few hours, if any, of Internet traction time to show for it.
This is what it is, Writer, when the romance gets stripped away and you’re left to get on with your life. This is what it means to do the work. Do you want it? Or do you want something else entirely?
Rinaldi does a number of different things during her year in an open marriage. She has an affair with a man she knows from work. She posts ads in Craiglist that promptly get flagged and taken down. (It’s probably because you’re a cheater, one of the site admins advises her, despite the fact that her post clearly states that she’s in an open marriage.) She meets men in bars, at conferences, at galas. She joins a group called OneTaste, which is sort of like a cult but not really, where members practice open sexual relations and try to master the art of orgasmic meditation. She shoves her hesitant Catholic girlhood aside, finally, and lets her body lead the way.
My clitoris, she says at one point, deals only in truth. I laughed out loud when I read that, in part because it was so cheesy but also in part because I could see how it might just be possible. How someone might plunge so wholeheartedly down a different path, might believe that their body could tell them something truer than what their heart and mind have been saying all along.
Rinaldi is a gifted writer, not least
because of her sexy, sexy sex scenes. But I struggled at times with how
she skirted over the hurt that she caused in her marriage. No doubt it’s
a survival thing, as well as a gesture of respect–she was, after all,
writing about the dissolution of her husband’s marriage too, and that is
no small task. It’s no easy thing to be careful and respectful when
you’re wanting to be true to yourself but also take into account the
fact that other people share your story.
I’ve never been married, so I can’t claim to know how that feels, or understand the hurt that might come from encountering this kind of fork in the road. I think Rinaldi walks a delicate balance in the book between giving space to the pain that her husband is feeling and also looking at her own pain, the memories and the events in her life that might have led her to this kind of decision. I do think it’s telling, however, when one of her friends points out about halfway through the book that Rinaldi had always known her husband hadn’t wanted to have children.
“You’d been hoping,” the friend said, essentially, “that he would someday change his mind.”
Last night a friend stayed over at my apartment. He took me out for dinner and I broke down at the table. I feel, I said, like what I’m doing is a waste. I don’t see the point anymore. I just don’t.
A little later, back at my house, he sat and talked about how the pain of the artist is the pain of the person who knows that there’s always something just out of reach. That’s what the artist does, he said. They take that pain, that striving, and bring it to the world in a way that can reach across to other people too–maybe people who don’t have the time or the strength to see that pain or reach for the unattainable themselves. And sometimes they flame out in the process.
All I could see was a long line of people, climbing up to an altar and setting themselves on fire while the rest of the world hooted from the stands.
It was a good book, The Wild Oats Project. Interesting and brave and selfish and funny and sad and unflinching in the face of what must have been a very difficult decision. And of course there’s so much more to that particular story that we’ll never know, which is exactly the way it should be.
It made me sad though, which I wasn’t really expecting. I came to the end of it feeling like it was the story of a woman who had decided to give up what felt, for her, like a kind of half-life, only to find herself in another half-life by the end of it. And so I think: is this always what happens, on some level?
It never occurred to me when I was younger that you would ever have to choose, or find yourself in a situation that could make you happy but also left you wanting, just a little. A marriage. Or writing. Whatever. That you could reach and feel the tips of what you want just there at your fingertips, and then in the act of reaching suddenly realize that this thing has grown beyond you, become bigger, moved ever so slightly that much farther away.
I am wondering, I suppose, about what happens when you reach that
fork in the road. When you realize that certain things in your life may
always be unattainable. Do you make do with what you have? Do you change
gears and let something else–the heart, the mind, or even the
clitoris!–make your decisions for you?
Is it bad to dream beyond youself, or believe that one thing or person can bring you everything you need? Writing. A partner. Whatever.
We dream so much. We never factor in the altar, or the flames.