The Arrangement: A Novel by Sarah Dunn (March 21, Little Brown, 368 pp.)
Many’s the author or auteur who has based a story on unconventional marriage, which is why the title of this review plays with one of those stories, the iconic 1969 feature film “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice.” That farcical sex comedy’s title alone conjures up shag carpeting, wicker-wrapped Chianti bottles, and mod sweaters; its partner-swapping shtick seems very much of its time.
That’s the trouble with making the mores and manners of an era your subject. If the times, they are a-changin’, well, so do tastes in how we view sexual dalliance. It’s a different millennium and we’re already well into its second decade. The book for this time is Sarah Dunn’s The Arrangement, about a Gen-X married couple who have left the youthful hipster paradise of New York City and settled in the slightly older-hipster paradise of the Hudson Valley. The pair have a five-year-old son named Wyatt who is “on the spectrum,” as such parents say. They’re pretty happy with their pretty new town of Beekman, filled with authentically grubby businesses owned by locals and authentically twee businesses launched by locals, too, in an effort to attract more city emigrants. Their lives, it seems, are set, painted in the muted tones of milk paint favored by the New Upstate denizens.
But when Owen and Lucy find out that some Brooklyn friends have embarked on open marriage, they are strangely intrigued. Lucy has lost most of her concept of self while caring for Wyatt, and Owen has lost most of his mojo from trying to keep up with his career. Their intellects, even more than their libidos, galvanize an “arrangement,” one allowing them six months of pieces on the side, but with some strict rules. “If we ever did that, rule number one would be we tell no one,” Owen tells Lucy. They agree on no falling in love, condoms at all times, if you want to sext you have to sit outside, etc. These are new rules for a generation in which the men make their own barbecue spice rubs and the women volunteer to cook hot lunch at the local elementary school. Accountability and organic ingredients are more important than titillation and spontaneity.
That doesn’t mean nothing unexpected will happen, however, and it’s in the progress of Owen and Lucy’s experiment that we see author Dunn’s fiercest feminism. While Owen winds up an unwitting handyman for the town’s most pathetic Chardonnay drunk, Lucy meets a divorcé who reawakens her body and her mind. Their relationship deepens at about the same pace Owen’s falls into slapstick territory, although even the silliest scenes are perfectly paced—after all, Sarah Dunn is a television writer (Murphy Brown, Bunheads) whose new series American Wife will mine territory similar to this book’s.
But Lucy’s relationship with Ben isn’t silly, even if some of the other characters veer towards caricature (e.g., her Asian-American best friend named Sunny Bang—vile choice). It’s a real relationship, one that unwittingly highlights how vapid the minor characters are. As Lucy and Ben fall in deep, real love, a love that includes friendship, I wondered if that might be Dunn’s point: When you encounter the real thing, everything else around you falls away, is somehow diminished.
In an interview with Kirkus Magazine, Sarah Dunn said of her book: “In any intimate relationship, there is a dance between being seen and unseen. . . .If it’s healthy, you keep communicating about that. You keep saying ‘See me,’ and the other person either does, or makes progress toward that, or they don’t—then you’ve got a real problem on your hands.” One step further: When one partner in this kind of agreement starts being seen and discovers how powerful that act is, things will be forever changed regardless of progress or problems. Another step: When women, in this case a woman who has opted to spend time as a stay-at-home mother, are seen as full human beings—fully sensual, fully intellectual, fully equal—then anything can happen. Because despite the rules of engagement, Owen and Lucy’s marital arrangement can’t survive Lucy’s being seen.
What happens next is anticlimactic, but also real—and that may be the best finale to a book that is very much of its era, yet contains nuggets of universal truth. The Arrangement may, one day, connote Late-Hipster America, just as “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice” connotes those Chianti bottles. Both, however, are memorable.
Bethanne Patrick is the Co-Executive Editor for ROAR, a position she has been training for since childhood, when she organized games of “newsroom” in her basement, and always made the assignments. When she’s not emailing Sarah and Jeet, she can be found reviewing books for The Washington Post and NPR, acting as a contributing editor at Lit Hub, and working on her novel. Just kidding–she’s usually reading, which is why she is also the Books & Media editor for ROAR. Patrick is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.