I don’t know if I’ll offer it a full-blown review, but will admit to have pretty much liked the book though, to be sure, she often balanced out her often enlightening anecdotes and observations with an infuriating condescension toward social conservatives, indeed, pretty much anyone of a faith not of the New Age. And she just couldn’t hide her political or social prejudices — prejudices which contributed little if anything to her overall narrative, disjointed as it often was.
That said, in her brief consideration of gay marriage (pp. 71-76), she offers a better defense of the expanded definition of the institution than do most gay activists (but a defense which corresponds with the lives of many gay couples).
While she herself is not wise, she offers nuggets of wisdom throughout the book. I say she is not wise because she spends the whole book fighting against her own prejudices, without really confronting them on an intellectual level (at least at times, she does seem to acknowledge them). She can’t really stand outside herself or her own experiences — though, to be sure, at times she does try. And sometimes her anecdotes work beautifully, other times they fall flat.
In one, however, she even echoes (perhaps unconsciously) the oldest story about matrimony, The Odyssey: ”This,” she writes on page 239, “is intimacy the trading of stories in the dark.” When the long-suffering Odysseus was finally united with his beloved wife Penelope who had remained faithful as she waited a full twenty years for her betrothed’s return, his patroness Athene delayed the dawn so that the married couple might both share their stories and, um, well, share the pleasures of, um, well, love-making.
Her anecdotes nonetheless become both the greatest strength of the book and its greatest weakness. She is at her best (both stylistically and narratively), engaging and sometimes informative, when she tells her own stories. But, while the book purports to offer a “historical study” of the institution, she offers only a cursory treatment of the topic, never footnoting her sources and breezily summarizing the two (or was it three or four?) books she read on the institution. She doesn’t seem to have consulted anything that defends the social conservative understanding of the institution.
This is more a collection of how her experiences shaped her understanding of marriage than an attempt to understand how the institution evolved (though toward the end, she does make a valiant, but abbreviated attempt to consider that subject).
The greatest weaknesses of this book are not so much what she includes but what she fails to include. Heaven forbid she would ask a social conservative like Phyllis Schlafly or Maggie Gallagher why they defend marriage or to identify some of the books which influenced their thinking.
It wasn’t just social conservatives she failed to consider. She forget to consider men as well, except as they exist in the minds of women, individuals who are at once desired and resisted. Her chapter on “Marriage and Women” is the book’s longest, clocking it at 68 pages, roughly one-quarter of the book. There is no chapter “Marriage and Men.” (Perhaps she should have consulted George Gilder’s book, Men and Marriage, if she could have demeaned herself to read something written by a scholar whom social conservatives admire.)
And that said, there are enough nuggets of wisdom in this book to make it a valuable one. Save Jonathan Rauch’s book, it is the first book to make a serious attempt at making a serious case for gay marriage. It’s just too bad she didn’t devote enough time to the institution’s “domesticating” effect on men. But, her anecdotes at least do show how the very power of this ancient and honorable institution can draw in a one-time skeptic.
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