I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine, goes the line in the Song of Songs, and for untold generations it has expressed a universally acknowledged romantic ideal. Jonathan Papernick’s new novel doesn’t examine why this ideal of mutually exclusive commitment is, in recent years, increasingly held up for questioning; rather, it conjures a scenario that takes polyamory at face value. Instead of telling, it shows. The absolute refusal to pass judgment and the unflinching willingness to delve into the emotional motivations, and costs, of “open marriage” enables this novel to express the sort of narrative truths that fiction at its best can engender.
Ben and Shira Seidel are a thirty-something Jewish couple living in Boston. They are prosperous and successful – he’s an architect, she’s an artist specializing in ketubot, complete with Hebrew calligraphy. Yet Shira is also a cancer survivor, and a resulting hysterectomy has made it impossible for them to realize their hopes of starting a family. The physical trauma she’s suffered, as well as the trauma of knowing that she can never get pregnant, have brought about a profound change in her experience of her own sexuality and physicality. The story opens with Shira dressed in “a little black dress, flared jauntily at the hem, and a pair of glossy black pumps Ben had never seen before,” informing Ben that she’s going to a party with Liz, a free-spirited, bisexual, tattooed artist who does burlesque stripping on the side. “I want to feel the pleasure of being a woman, not just the pain,” she tells him, explaining:
…this could be a good thing for both of us. I need some sort of reset. You know, rebooting my relationship with my own body. You’re free to explore your desires while we find our way back to each other. No matter what happens, I will always be your soft place to land.
But Ben isn’t interested in casual sex with other women. “Can’t we figure this out on our own?” he pleads. “What is it I can’t give you?” To which Shira responds, "The mystery, the unknown, exploring different parts of myself. That feeling of being wanted. It’s like nothing else, that look in their eyes when they just have to have you."
For some, it may be difficult to read this book without being critical, not only of the characters’ choices that embroil them in ever deepening layers of ethical complexity, but also of the growing numbers of people who willingly agree to subject their closest relationships to the potential of unravelment. Yet this is a book best read through an impartial lens, as it offers a window into the way that we are now compelled to negotiate the unprecedented sexual liberation that characterizes our era, in which one is expected to confront the question of one’s sexual orientation, preferences, and priorities. One in which a wife might help her husband “fix” his Tinder profile, as Shira does for Ben. When Ben admits to feeling jealous, Shira admonishes him, "Jealousy is not an emotion. It’s a social construct. It has to do with who you are and how you feel about yourself. Only you can change how you react.”
As readers, we feel Ben’s hurt and confusion when his wife reassures him that she loves him and doesn’t intend to leave him. When he replies, “But I can’t give you what Liz gives you,” Shira tells him,
No, you can’t. And she can’t give me what you give me. It’s not fair to expect our partners to be everything at all times: lover. Playmate, critic, partier in crime, headshrinker, sounding board, whipping post. I know I can’t be all things to you. That’s why a girlfriend might help. Someone to give you what I can’t give.
One of the things that Shira can’t give Ben, or herself, is a baby, and it feels like a logical plot development when Liz agrees to have a baby with Ben (IVF conceived, of course). When Liz gets pregnant the three agree to parent the baby together. It is at this point the book opens a different ethical dilemma, that of surrogacy and parenting. Though everyone is thrilled with the prospect of parenthood, no one is sure how its reality is going to unfold.
Things seem to be somehow working out, except that, with Shira’s enthusiastic encouragement, Ben too has begun a relationship with a woman, Pamela, whom he duly informs about his marital status. Inevitable complications ensue when Pamela also gets pregnant with Ben’s child. It’s a situation that feels contrived, but also entirely possible, a scenario that calls all received knowlege about love, marriage, fidelity, and family, into question.
The story is told from Ben’s point of view, and Papernick doesn’t shy away from detailed descriptions of his protagonist's sexual encounters with his wife and lover. The book is replete with sex and sexuality, but it doesn’t feel gratuitous. This book, after all, trains its focus on what plays out in the bedroom, and the subsequent repercussions.
“Well, what is the child going to be?” Ben, ever perplexed by the situations he finds himself in, asks Pamela. “What about church and Christmas and Jesus? You grew up with Jesus, right? I can’t do Jesus. I just can’t.” Pamela reassures him that she believes in nothing, and so the child is going to be nothing. But Ben is far from reassured.
A cold wave of sadness swept over Ben, his body chilled by the fact that this baby, inching ever so gradually towards being, was already nothing, cut off from wisdom and tradition Ben himself had chosen again and again to ignore. He had made a choice. This child would have no such choice.
This is the stark, even chilling place, where the story ends. It might be nice to provide one’s child with the traditional, if imperfect, framework of a stable two-parent family, but in our brave new world of unlimited choice and ever-shifting identities, those certainties just might be a thing of the past.
reviewed by Ofira Koopmans