The Loving Couple

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.


Filed under Books, Fiction

8 responses to “The Loving Couple

  1. Glad you enjoyed it. It’s definitely one of those books in which you have to keep reminding yourself it’s a product of its time (although I came to believe he was actually making fun of all that., since he was definitely an outcast in society himself).


  2. I love books like this–where you get a sense of the period (good or bad). Its clever when novelists or filmmakers do the same story from two perspectives, too. It can certainly be enlightening. And I’m impressed that he was able to distinguish the two voices so well and convincingly! I’ll have to check this out.


  3. Never heard of this one but it sounds really good. I like that you actually have to turn around the book to read the “other” side of the story. Cool.


  4. verbivore

    I haven’t heard of this one either but it does sound like a fascinating (and probably quite frustrating) study of the time period. I like the idea of the device – pick your side, so to speak. It would have been interesting if the woman’s half carried the female pseudonym and the man’s half carried the male author’s name – or vice versa to spice things up.


  5. That’s one reason “Mildred Pierce” is so enjoyable, a man was able to channel a woman’s inner voice. Your description of this intrigues me. Will have to see if the NYPL carries it.


  6. You’re killing me! I can’t add any more books to my TBR list. I have run out of room on my bookshelves and my amazon list is pages long.

    Seriously, I love your book reviews. They always give me a real feel for the book and your opinion — good or bad — is always so well justified. I am sure I would have loved having you as a teacher.


  7. Emily — knowing more about the author would certainly help to make sense of all the troubling bits. Thanks for lending me the book!

    Danielle — yes, it’s fun to read books that strongly reflect their time periods, even if they are disturbing sometimes. This makes me wonder what makes some books feel dated and others not, even though they are old …

    Iliana — I like that format too, and that’s why I picked it up in the first place. The author really doesn’t privilege either one of the two stories, though I tried to figure out if one was clearer or introduced more or seemed more important in one way or another.

    Verbivore — yes, good suggestion! Different authors for different sections; I like that. I wonder if people would read it differently knowing or not knowing that a man wrote it …

    Fendergal — it’s certainly a fun novel about NYC if you like reading about your home town …

    ZoesMom — so sorry! Except not really 🙂 Thank you very much for the compliments!!


  8. I read a review by someone else recently (of course, can’t remember who) for this book. It does sound interesting. I’m always amazed when a man can pull off writing as a woman.


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