The Loving Couple is written by Virginia Rowans, who is really Patrick Dennis, the guy who wrote Auntie Mame. The authorial gender switching makes the book that much more interesting because it is split in half, one part from the perspective of a woman and the other from that of a man — in fact, the two parts each have their own cover complete with a title page and publishing information so you can’t tell which part you are supposed to begin with. You just pick one side, read to the middle, flip the book over and start with the other.
I started with the woman’s story, and as I was reading I found it jarring when I remembered that a man wrote it. I felt as though it were written by a woman. But then when I got to the man’s story, I found it hard to believe that the same person had written the woman’s version I’d just finished. It felt like two different people wrote the book. This is pretty impressive, I think.
The novel covers one bad day in the life of a marriage — it begins with a horrific fight and a breakup, and then follows the man and the woman as they have one of the worst days ever. They meet awful people, get caught up in awful parties, get tracked down by angry family members, feel trapped, get betrayed, learn things about other people, and learn things about themselves. The structure is interesting as the characters go through parallel events; for example, each character meets someone who tempts them into a possible affair, and they have to decide how they will respond.
The parallel narratives cover the same day, but for the most part they don’t cover the same exact events, so we don’t get the psychologically-interesting technique of having each character’s perspective on the same conversation or event. Instead what we get is a more exterior view, a satirical look at what happens to two people as they try to recover from their vicious fight by running away to fascinating new people and places.
The book is light and entertaining, as it was meant to be, and yet it offers a contemporary reader a lot to think about, as it is very much a book of its time, 1956, in terms of the way it portrays social issues. My God, is this a snobby book. Rowans has all kinds of fun lampooning the awful suburban culture the characters have moved into — the elite development somewhere on the Hudson that cross-examines potential members to make sure they are the right sort, although the right sort can be pretty horrid, as we learn when we meet the neighbors. Opposed to this stuffy suburban life is the wild city where you can meet bohemians and artists deep in the heart of Greenwich Village. Part of the plot is the characters’ need to figure out just where they belong — who are their real friends and where is their real home?
The city/suburb conflict is amusing, but the pervasive sexism and racism is not. I’m not sure how much of this Rowans is satirizing or how much is simply a reflection of the way people, including the author, thought at the time, but it’s hard to read casual comments about, for example, how one family was excluded from membership in the development because of a Jewish ancestor and to see that the only African-Americans are servants and are very stereotypically portrayed.
It’s a good reminder of all that has changed in the last fifty years, which isn’t that long, really. As I read I went back and forth between enjoying myself and wincing at some new dismissal of women or some other detail offensive to modern readers. It’s not as though in 2008 we’re so terribly enlightened, but a book like this can show that we’ve made some progress at least.
So all in all it’s an interesting read, and for a number of different reasons. I’m glad I picked it up.