A hilarious and emotionally charged novel about a couple who embark on an open marriage-what could possibly go wrong?
Lucy and Owen, ambitious, thoroughly-therapized New Yorkers, have taken the plunge, trading in their crazy life in a cramped apartment for Beekman, a bucolic Hudson Valley exurb. They’ve got a two hundred year-old house, an autistic son obsessed with the Titanic, and 17 chickens, at last count. It’s the kind of paradise where stay-at-home moms team up to cook the school’s “hot lunch,” dads grill grass-fed burgers, and, as Lucy observes, “chopping kale has become a certain kind of American housewife’s version of chopping wood.”
When friends at a wine-soaked dinner party reveal they’ve made their marriage open, sensible Lucy balks. There’s a part of her, though-the part that worries she’s become too comfortable being invisible-that’s intrigued. Why not try a short marital experiment? Six months, clear ground rules, zero questions asked. When an affair with a man in the city begins to seem more enticing than the happily-ever-after she’s known for the past nine years, Lucy must decide what truly makes her happy-“real life,” or the “experiment?”
The Arrangement wants very badly to be funny and topical, but only partially succeeds. While it’s a quick and quirky read, there are just too many illogical moments for this book to fully hit the mark.
Lucy and Owen love each other, struggle with their special-needs son Wyatt, and are more or less happy living in their little community, where people seem committed to providing their children with an idealized, wholesome quality of life. The idea of open marriage drops into their laps during a drunken dinner with friends, and it seems like with barely any real thought, Lucy and Owen decide to give it a go.
They launch their arrangement with a list of rules written in Sharpie on a legal pad: No talking about The Arrangement. (Yes, there are references to Fight Club). There’s a six-month duration, and then it’s done. No falling in love. Always use condoms. (No Costco condoms, either; make sure they’re good quality.) No prostitutes. No sexting inside the house. It starts as a joke, but within one conversation, they decide to actually do it.
Owen falls quickly into a sexy relationship with a local woman, who at first seems to provide him with just the sexual adventure he’s look for — but who quickly turns into a high-need, demanding girlfriend who’s combining their trysts with household chores like caulking the bathroom. And really, if Owen were going to start doing repairs for a woman, he might as well have stayed home. At the same time, Owen doesn’t really believe that Lucy will follow through on her side of The Arrangement, and has no idea that she’s found her own regular sex partner, who could turn into something more.
Meanwhile, the people of Beekman figure heavily in the background of the story, as we see one unhappy marriage after another, each with its own oddities and hidden secrets. The marital problems of the town seem to escalate throughout the book, as relationships tumble downward, fast.
I’ll admit that I had fun with The Arrangement while I was reading it. It had enough clever and interesting bits to keep me wanting more, and I read it all in about two days. At the same time — and maybe this is just because I don’t match the demographics or lifestyle or geography of the characters — I just couldn’t relate to these people at all.
The main characters are mostly in their 30s, with young children, experiencing life on the other side of wedded bliss. They all seem to be struggling with the reality that hits once marriage and family life is no longer new, when there are bills and groceries and school projects and home repairs to deal with. The initial euphoria is gone, and all of the characters in the book seem to be hitting a form of mid-life crisis at the same time.
Lucy and Owen’s decision makes little to no sense. They each feel weighed down by their lives, and miss the romance and excitement of their earlier years. But it’s a big step to decide to try an open marriage, and the fact that they launch themselves down this path with practically no discussion seems unbelievable.
The antics of the town are too cutesy to take at times, with the emphasis on organic foods and community organizing and non-stop mommy pressure. There’s a blessing of the animals event that becomes a big focus for the entire town later in the book, and it’s clearly intended to be a big comical moment in the story, as each family tries to outdo the rest by bringing more exotic animals than their neighbors. But when the event gets completely out of hand and ends in disaster, it’s so utterly predictable that it loses its comic value.
Likewise, the insistence on shifting focus away from Lucy and Owen to go inside others’ marriages becomes tedious and makes the storytelling seem more scattered than it needs to be. There’s far too much attention paid to the marriage of a 60-ish billionaire and his much younger 3rd wife, and they’re just not that amusing or important to take up that much space.
The Arrangement is a fun, light read, and as I said, I zipped through it. But there’s an inconsistency in the tone; not everything is funny, particularly not seeing a marriage dissolving in a way that could have been prevented had the characters not made ill-considered, bone-headed decisions. The foolish way in which the two main characters risk their marriage and their family life irked me too much to keep me from truly enjoying the story.
Title: The Arrangement
Author: Sarah Dunn
Publisher: Little Brown and Company
Publication date: March 21, 2017
Length: 357 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction