Sarah Dunn’s new novel, The Arrangement takes Owen and Lucy, who are imagining themselves unhappily married in the future, and encourages them to sleep around.
The idea comes to the happily married couple via a conversation at a dinner party, which is also how Sarah Dunn came upon the idea for this novel.
This is her third novel to focus on relationships (following The Big Love in 2004 and Secrets to Happiness in 2009) and her characters actually do act on this idea, but the author pointedly states that her own marriage is not an open marriage.
In real life, the author and her husband devised the rules the characters would use for their arrangement, but only fictional Owen and Lucy pursue an Arrangement.
“For me, the open marriage was solving a basic problem of writing novel[s], which is to get your characters up a tree and throw rocks at them. This was a very efficient way of doing that.” (From Interview with Sarah Lyall in The New York Times)
In the beginning, however, Owen and Lucy think it’s a grand idea to climb the tree.
Suzy’s friend spots the risks for the couple immediately.
“This is a divorce you guys are looking at. This is a divorce in slow motion.”
But Owen and Suzy are committed.
Committed to their marriage, yes.
But also Committed to the Arrangement.
“(Lucy found herself thinking about all of this in formal, capitalized phrases: the Dinner Party, the Conversation, the Arrangement, the Rules.)”
The story itself relies heavily on a broader set of rules, social expectations of husbands and wives and men and women.
“There existed a general consensus among the married women of Beekman that husbands were useless. Not that any of the ladies wanted to be husbandless – not quite, not yet, probably never – but if you gathered two or more around a bottle of wine, the complaints would begin pouring out, first a trickle and then a flood.”
The old idea that a man is motivated by lust and a woman by love? The Arrangement depends heavily on that presumption and does little to subvert readers’ expectations.
“One of the results of turning yourself invisible was that the moment somebody actually paid attention to you, the minute somebody actually looked into your eyes for three seconds too long or touched your arm a few too many times or sent you a mildly dirty e-mail, you thought you were in love with him. It didn’t take much.”
Women complain about their husbands and wait for some other man to look into their eyes for three seconds too long.
This is a more familiar tree than it seemed at first.
But Owen and Lucy do not follow predictable paths through this experience. Both remain committed parents and the scenes revolving around childcare and everyday interactions are vivid and relatable.
They also aim to behave with integrity, even though they struggle to understand the situation they have created, struggle with the realization that some things cannot be corralled with capitalization and a specialized vocabulary.
“This is totally nonattachment and nonduality.”
“I’m not sure I understand what nonduality is.”
“Nobody does,” said Owen. “That’s part of it. It can’t be understood with the mind.”
It’s a mess.
The Rules are just words and, at least in the beginning, reflect intention more than reality.
Owen and Lucy are up in that tree and Sarah Dunn is throwing rocks at them.
While Owen and Lucy adjust their footing up in the branches, there are some very entertaining scenes.
And when I say ‘entertaining’, I mean I chuckled aloud several times and paused more than once to let the book settle into my lap so I could enjoy the idea of the scene described. (In one memorable incident, a should-be-basking lover experiences a moment of overwhelming banality, more so than anything in their married life.)
Sarah Dunn’s experience as a television writer is evident and the pacing is ever-beckoning. (Play next episode = One more chapter)
The author’s dialogue balances the need for polish with believability perfectly and she has an eye for the moments of conflict which satisfy comically precisely because of the tinge of darkness in the background.
She also involves a variety of secondary characters who fully inhabit their own small spaces in this story. They are there to serve Owen and Lucy’s story, which does not allow for true development but does hint at depth beneath a surface which plays out offstage (beyond readers’ purview).
There are some very sharp, astute observations of married and privileged life too. And the occasional bit of philosophy reminds readers that heartbreak is nearby.
“Your children’s needs remind you of your needs. Their pain reminds you of your pain.”
Recently, I reread an old favourite Marge Piercy novel, Braided Lives, in which Jill’s character has all kinds of opinions about marriage.
One which she repeats is this: ““I don’t want any marriage I ever saw.”
Owen and Lucy’s marriage would do nothing to change Jill’s mind. Nor should it.
No author sticks her characters up a tree in order for readers to envy them.
And, so, if you read to find new friends and likeable people? Look elsewhere.
For entertainment and astute observations: Sarah Dunn’s The Arrangement.
Not a skipping stone, but a rock with an exposed edge, solid and sharp.
What books or stories about marriage have you read recently? Which would you recommend?