From the first time your reader laid eyes on the book cover: its delicate, virginal whiteness, the image of the diamond ring above the lilac font, she knew she was in for a treat. Could it be a book on wedding planning? A collection of rueful essays about men, specifically how they don't cry and have lousy taste in throw pillows?
Ha ha! Was your reader in for a surprise. It was actually about how one can combine a lifestyle that involves planned communities, blonde marina girl highlights, dutiful husbands, and aesthetic surgery with an equally lively existence of shagging persons outside the bounds of sacred matrimony. As the author, Jenny Block puts it, "If I were to eat Italian food for several days in a row, for instance, I might want to go out for Chinese one night, which would only make the next Italian meal more enjoyable." Ah, the fertile yet swampy ground between outsider and dominant culture.
Berkeley-based Seal Press has a penchant for taking seemingly fringe women's issues (like men who used to be women who have babies thus visibly freaking out Barbara Walters) and then squeezing them, ingeniously, into the framework of the mainstream. Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage is the newest example of the genre, and it creates the same sense of wonder in your reader that she witnesses upon seeing a duck stuffed into a turkey. It seems impossible. But then suddenly the duck is gone and the turkey is all that remains.
Block is that turkey: bronze, and American, and glazed. Her pro-open marriage argument reads something like this: if a) I'm normal (see: likes children, scrap booking, gourmet dinners) then b) everything I do is also normal. At one point, she compares herself and her romantic liaisons to Starbucks, in the sense that they're on every street corner, hidden in plains sight. It's a mention that I hope resulted in a product placement fee.
Block herself could have been contrived by Martha Stewart's design staff. An early boyfriend is described as "handsome and preppy in his Ralph Lauren sweater and Weejun loafers." An ill-advised affair with another woman is cemented while sitting in rocking chairs gazing up at the stars on the porch of an old Victorian. Seconds after Block and her husband decide to open up their marriage, a woman whom Block describes as having "beautiful hair and an amazing body" drops out of the ceiling like a deus ex machina. She makes love to them both and stays over 'til morning. At which point Block's husband cooks everyone breakfast. And then friendly squirrels arrive and do the dishes. And a talking deer stops by to tell them that they've won the lottery.
Three months later, the deus ex machina decides that she would rather sleep with Block's husband and leave Block out of the situation entirely. Eek. Can a life that involves crossing swords with so many social taboos avoid such awkwardness? Probably not to the real Block, but the narrative Block hits every emotional and social snag she faces like the prow of an icebreaker. Girlfriend only wants to sleep with husband? That's cool: "Nothing is less sexy than disinterest." The neighbor lady doesn't want her kid coming over to play with Block's daughter anymore because she's weirded out after fooling around with Block and her husband? Block's there to talk her down, remarking ruefully that being a poster child for open marriage is its own full-time job.
But the poster child persona wreaks havoc with the narrative, which ultimately congeals to the texture of library paste, even before one reaches the afterward, which turns out to be a very sweet note from Block's husband reassuring everyone that he doesn't think of himself a cuckold. It's just hard to find the dramatic rise and fall in a story that is, in its essence: "Woman, after much struggle, tosses off perfect façade of suburban hetero-normative marriage. Instantly, an equally unblemished and non-chaotic façade of perfect open marriage rises to replace it." If there's one thing your reader remembers from high school English class, it's the concept of the unreliable narrator.
Block is serious about wanting Open to read like a fairy tale, and your reader finds herself hoping that Block's life really is this way, and that the gingerbread façade really is gingerbread. But the thing about real fairy tales is: they're messy. They're tricky. Trolls are constantly eating people. That's why, generations later, people still read them. Deep down, we realize that loving someone, no matter how conventional or unconventional the circumstances, is composed of more rough magic than magic.