So this is a new thing for me – a book review! I hope you enjoy it.
Cooper S. Beckett
A Life Less Monogamous
Chicago: Hump & Circumstance Press, 2016
318 pages, paperback, also e-book and audiobook formats
ISBN (Paperback): 978-1518685712
Available from CooperSBeckett.com
Ryan and Jennifer Lambert married young and are now anxiously confronting relationship bed death at the ripe old ages of 32 and 31, respectively. Their sex life may have tanked, but they love each other and want to make it work, which is why they’ve been going to couples therapy — not that it seems to be helping. They just can’t find the spark. And truth be told, their lives are rather bland. The Lamberts are the youngest among their circle of friends, three other couples all in their 30s, who are also bland, bored, and seemingly just clocking time until retirement.
And then at a Christmas party, the Lamberts meet Bruce and Paige Shepard: in their mid-40s, they’re vivacious and have an unfamiliar — and attractive — zest for life. Who are these people? Intrigued, the Lamberts decide to try to make some new friends, so Ryan contacts the party’s host to get the Shepards’ phone number, at which point the host takes it upon himself to warn Ryan that the Shepards are swingers. And Ryan makes the call anyway…
In the hands of a typical writer, swinging would likely be demonized and used as a source of conflict to drive the plot, and so it was refreshing though not surprising that the author (a swinger himself) took a compassionate, insider’s approach instead. This book looks realistically at the sorts of challenges that people may face when finding their way in the lifestyle – mostly revolving around issues of insecurity and jealousy. Such a non-hand-wringing approach to this variety of ethical non-monogamy is welcome and valuable.
That said, it wasn’t as effective as it could have been. It has a very high level of verisimilitude, which (like HDTV) can be both a blessing and a curse. Although the book is billed and presented as fiction, the copyright page contains a statement that the events and stories are true, and I felt a slight tension throughout due to the fusion of novel and autobiography.
The book doesn’t quite stand up to the label of “novel” — the author has to an extent let the truth get in the way of a good story. At times I found the actions of the characters obviously unwise and I shook my head when they subsequently ran headlong into utterly predictable problems. For instance, the Lamberts have arranged to attend a sex party but even before they arrive, it’s apparent that Ryan is not feeling entirely at ease. It comes as no surprise when his mood sours during the evening, and the addition of alcohol to the mix sends things to a cringe-inducing conclusion.
The autobiographer is confined to telling the truth as it happened from his own perspective, while the novelist is tasked with constructing believable characters and crafting a satisfying storyline. In the translation from personal history to novel, the plot didn’t get the makeover it needed.
The issue facing the Lamberts is that their sex lives are boring and so (even though this book is neither romance nor erotica) a focus on bedroom issues is necessary, but it felt slightly disproportionate and at times even unsettling. Did the characters really have no other interests in life? I got the sense that the Lamberts’ lackluster sex was likely a symptom of ennui because their lives were generally uninteresting. But that larger issue was, unsatisfyingly, never addressed. Swinging came into their lives serendipitously and they jumped in the deep end following minimal reflection. While it could be a fun adventure, it’s not a magic bullet.
I’m confronted by the observation that these were the thoughts and decisions and actions of real people, which I have no right or intention to criticize. But the novel comprises a collection of the novelist’s decisions about how to write an engaging story, and for me it missed the mark a bit. All that being said, aside from a few relatively minor editing issues, the quality of the writing is generally rather good. But you might be happier if you think of it as an autobiography rather than a novel.
Before reading A Life Less Monogamous, I was concerned that it would be a book-length sales pitch for swinging. Its honesty made it less of a sales pitch and more of a gently cautionary tale with a peek behind closed doors.
Note: I was given a free copy of the e-book in exchange for an honest review.
EDIT (29 Jun): This review alerted the author to an error. It turns out that the copyright page statement mentioned above belongs to his memoir and its inclusion in the novel was unintentional. The statement should read: “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, parties, orgies, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination, or are used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.”
My belief that the book was essentially a novelized account of actual events significantly affected my experience of it. Now, knowing that it is entirely fictional, I find the hyperfocus on sex and the characters’ lack of insight to be more problematic.