Summer Reading #13: Katie Roiphe, _Uncommon Arrangements_
This book annoyed me SO MUCH. And it is not even because her title is similar to the title (The Arrangement) for my novel that was cancelled by HarperCollins. That is just icing on the cake of my fury. Okay, not fury. But I don't know when I've ever before read a book that has irritated me on almost every page -- but which I still read all the way to the end. Credit to the subject matter, not the author.
The book is nonfiction, an account of seven marriages (or semi-marriages) amongst the Bloomsbury literary set. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloomsbury_Group) This is Virginia Woolf's crowd, and she appears in the book, along with Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell, Duncan Grant, Ottoline Morrell, Radclyffe Hall, etc. On the one hand, Roiphe has done a pretty decent job of mining a host of letters, diaries, biographies, etc., to put together the stories of their marriages, and has done so in a readable and compelling way. However.
I had two problems with the book. The first, more minor but still annoying, is that Roiphe's writing is, unsurprisingly, not as interesting as that of the people she surveys. And so when you get a page or two of Roiphe narrating, to a few brilliant words excerpted from a letter, it makes you want to cry. If I were Roiphe's editor, I would make the book twice as long, include a LOT more of the original writing and less of Roiphe's interpretation. Maybe no one else would read it then, because it would be a doorstop of a book, but it would be a better book. Full stop.
The bigger issue is linked to the smaller. Because we get so little of the original text, we're dependent on Roiphe's interpretation. And Roiphe consistently, throughout the book, over and over and over, takes a tiny word here or there, a word expressing frustration with an aspect of a relationship, and then uses that as justification for broad, sweeping interpretations of the marriages -- interpretations which inevitably, consistently, portray these writers as seriously screwed up, fooling themselves, deceiving each other, totally miserable, living a lie for decades, etc. and so on. And you know, some of them probably were. But all of them?
The fundamental problem I had with the book is one you may not have. Because I think it comes down to monogamy versus poly. None of these marriages were traditional monogamy (although the lesbian relationships between Radclyffe Hall and her partners perhaps comes closest). But Roiphe view them all through a monogamous lens. For all of her supposed attempts towards objectivity, the assumptions she brings to their lives create a judgemental lens that makes it impossible for her to see these marriages clearly. She assumes that, of course, no one could possibly be actually happy in any arrangement other than traditional monogamous marriage -- and that assumption colors everything she says, until I wanted to throw the book across the room.
As someone who has heard a variety of my married, monogamous friends complain, at length, about their husbands, their wives, their relationships -- while still being, overall, happily married -- I find that I resent the way Roiphe jumps on any murmur of discontent as evidence that oh, of course, this non-traditional relationship was doomed to failure.
All right, I'm probably just repeating myself now. But it makes me cranky (obviously) and also worried about the memoir I'm hoping to revise at Ragdale next week. Poly relationship stuff (the threesome I used to be in, for three years) is a big part of the book. I know that a lot of readers are going to come into it, assuming that oh, of course such relationships are doomed, she's just fooling herself, there MUST be secret deceptions, etc. and so on. Everything Roiphe brings to these stories she tries to interpret.
I am already exhausted at the thought of trying to write against those assumptions. Trying to present our stories both clearly, and in a way that can't be so badly misinterpreted. Perhaps that attempt, to present the actual emotions of poly in a way that monogamous people can understand and empathize with, is what's really doomed to failure. I don't know.