Essays on love gone AWOL by writers including Jacquelyn Mitchard, Marge Piercy, Ntozake Shange, Jane Smiley, and Roxana Robinson
Mr. Wrong: Real-Life Stories About the Men We Used to Love. Edited by Harriet Brown. Ballantine, 272 pp., $24.95.
By Janice Harayda
As part of the promotional campaign for this for this book, the publisher is sending Anti-Valentine’s Day cards to reading groups. So it’s probably safe to say that its market includes a lot of people who don’t expect to receive heart-shaped candy boxes this year.
What they’ll get is a book that seems intended partly to cash in on the success of the The Bitch in the House, a nonfiction anthology about the split personalities that some working women adopt on the job and at home. Mr. Wrong gathers 24 essays by female writers – and a token gay male – about how badly they have allowed themselves to be treated by men. Feminist it isn’t.
Contributors to this sort of book need to convince us that they’re smart enough to have something original to say but dumb enough to have put up with really bad men, or at least men who were bad for them. It’s a tough assignment. But four writers pull it off beautifully – Jane Smiley, Caroline Leavitt, Joyce Maynard, and Roxana Robinson – and a number of others come close enough to make their essays fun, if not exactly heartening, to read.
The best essays show a clear grasp of a truth: Women usually put up with Mr. Wrong because of an intersection of personal and cultural factors at a vulnerable time. In the weaker pieces the authors tend to blame only themselves – yes, you’ll see the phrase “low self-esteem” in this book – or tell stories that, if compelling, don’t provide enough evidence to justify their tacked-on, upbeat conclusions. And that kind variation in quality poses the risk if you dip in at the wrong place at the bookstore, you’ll put the book down without reading the essays you might enjoy more.
So let’s asumme this a college class where papers are graded on a curve. Here’s a list of the contributors, their essays, and their grades, starting with the introduction and then ranking the essays from best to worst:
Harriet Brown Introduction C-minus
Brown gets off to a bad start with her first line, “Mr. Wrong is the tug behind your navel – isn’t Mr. Right is a “tug behind your navel,” too? – and doesn’t recover, though she improves in an essay later in the book. “Every bad relationship that lasts more than a week or two,” she says, “does so because it triggers some of our deepest, darkest, most uncomfortable feelings.” Try applying this to men and you’ll see what’s wrong with it. Sometimes women stay in bad relationships for the same reasons men do – they like sex and nobody else is available. Or maybe they just want a date for Valentine’s Day.
Jane Smiley “A Good Struggle Relationship” Grade: A
Smiley writes about her first marriage in an essay that suggests, better than any in Mr. Wrong, the exceptionally complex range of factors that may explain why women stay in bad relationships. In Smiley’s case these include her height (over 6’), her Vassar education, and the Guy Fawkes Rebellion of 1605. That Marxist flag her husband made should have been a tip-off, though.
Joyce Maynard “Your Friend Always” Grade: A
Maynard’s life took on Silence of the Lambs undertones after she responded, during her divorce, to letters from a prisoner who had read her newspaper column. Her account of their correspondence is, for an essay, remarkably suspenseful.
Caroline Leavitt “My First Husband’s Girlfriend and Me” Grade: A
Ever wished you could talk to the woman a man left you for? Leavitt did just that when her husband’s girlfriend called. And called. And called. Her ability to listen to – and learn from – Stella helps to make her essay unique and fascinating.
Roxana Robinson “Senior Prom” Grade: A
There may be no better justification for going out with the wrong person than youth. Robinson knows this, and it enables her to write a poignant essay about a senior prom without looking foolish. “Senior Prom” is a quieter essay than others in the book, so it may seem less compelling to some readers, but it’s just as well-written.
Robin Westen “The Guru” Grade: A-minus
Westen deservedly opens this book with a show-stopping essay about her affair with a manipulative Zen cult leader who got her to pay $5,000 for “energizings” supposed to rid her system of “bad vibes.” But she cops out by explaining her involvement in terms of Bruce Springsteen lyrics and studies that she claims show that cults attract “the best and the brightest at a vulnerable moment in their lives.” Other research suggests that cult members’ early religious experiences also play a role. By ignoring hers, she seems to be pulling her punches or misunderstanding the appeal of the guru.
Catherine Texier “Russian Lessons” B-plus
Never, ever go out with a man named Yuri, especially if he sells pirated DVDs for a living, has a stash of neo-Nazi posters and, while he’s dating you, keeps trying to get other women to marry him so he can become a legal resident. Texier says she stayed with her Russian lover partly because she was fascinated by the social and cultural gap between them. And while this might explain why she stuck with this con artist for a few weeks, it doesn’t begin show us why she stayed in his orbit for more than a year.
Dana Kintsler “My Hades History” Grade: B-plus
Kintsler had the bad luck to fall for a filmmaker who kept his three wedding rings in a dish next to the bathroom sink so “anyone could put them on.” And if her essay about the affair is disjointed, she keeps you reading with vivid details like that one.
Marion Winik “The Ten Most Wanted” Grade: B-plus
Winik turns in the best first line in Mr. Wrong: “When, at twenty-seven, I married a good-looking and funny, though penniless, gay bartender who had recently lost his job as an ice-skating coach due to his drug problem, not everyone understood that this was a sensible choice, or at least a significant upgrade.” The rest of her piece is funny, too, though it reads less like an essay than a segment for NPR, where Winik is a commentator.
Michelle Huneven “The Key” B-plus
A fascinating if ultimately unfathomable essay by an intelligent seminarian who got involved with a “borderline psychopath” who had made so many suicide attempts, a psychiatrist said he had a “personality incompatible with life.” Why did Huneven do it? She has no idea. And at the end, neither do we.
Ethel Morgan Smith “Soul-Mating” Grade: B-plus
Second-person narration is the trickiest to pull off. But Morgan makes it work in an essay on Internet dating that begins: “You opt not to place a photograph with your ad: Attractive, well-educated, African-American female seeking friendly male companion between the ages of 45 and 60.” And some writers might want to have this book for that reason alone. Unfortunately for the book, Morgan Smith was astute enough to avoid falling for any of her correspondents, such as the man who told her “he spent a lot of years being gay,” so her essay also has less depth than some others.
Marge Piercy “Professor Wrong” Grade: B
Piercy writes believably about her affair with a literature professor who seems clearly to have been using her for a) sex; b) her fame as a novelist and poet; c) her place on Wellfleet or d) all of the above. But she dumps him in a scene has him “snarling” and saying lines that aren’t as credible as the rest of the essay.
Marilyn Jaye Lewis “Goodbye to the Gaiety” Grade: B
A bisexual erotic novelist, Lewis recalls her marriage to a gay man at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic. She has a fondness for shifting modes of address and jerky transitions like, “Let’s rewind to 1982,” that undermine the natural poignancy of her story, which at times has the tone of an elegy.
Audrey Niffeneger “The Composite Boyfriend” Grade: B
Just what it sounds like: a portrait of a composite ex-boyfriend, written with a well-controlled irony. Like Smith’s essay, this piece might be get an A in another book. But it lacks the emotional density of the more memorable essays in this one.
Harriet Brown “Minding My P’s and Q’s” Grade: B
Brown shows that she can write better than she did in her introduction in this essay about her fling with a welder who lived in a trailer in Vermont and liked to dress up in his mother’s clothes. Men in Trees was never like this.
Alicia Erian “Ardor and Its Discontents” B-minus
A few hilarious moments don’t quite make up for the author’s insufficiently examined neediness or her weak conclusion that “it’s wrong to hurt people who are smaller than you are.” Isn’t it also “wrong” to hurt people who are bigger?
Christiane Bird “Almost Homeless” Grade: B-minus
Think you’ve had bad dates? How would you like to spend three years with someone 16 years older who had no furniture and kept uncaged mice as pets? The appeal of this material would have been higher if Bird had cut the psychobabble. In a one line, she worries that she might have “a fear of commitment to someone more suitable, a possible lack of self-esteem, a sexual addiction to the other which often afflicts women.”
Diana Abu-Jaber “Of Romance and Revolution” Grade B-minus
Abu-Jaber has a good story to tell about her relationship wish a Marxist janitor with a show on cable TV show. Alas, she tells it in cutesy, sophomoric prose, such as: “So Gram pinned her hopes on moi…Come awwwwwn …yadda, yadda.”
Jacquelyn Mitchard “That Thing He Didn’t Do” Grade: C
Writing about reconnecting with a man she once adored, Mitchard begins with a cliché (“He was only perfect”) and ends with one (“I would always love him, too”).
Susan Jane Gilman “I’m Still Waiting …” Grade: C
Gilman says she’s married to “a terrific man” but is “still waiting for her “Prince Charming,” or “that human asthma attack to sweep me off my feet.” This is the only essay that makes you feel sorry for the husband who will read it.
Ann Hood “Swoon” Grade: C
Hood meditates on the clash between her ideas about her dates and her mother’s. Her conclusion that she finally found a husband after she “decided to listen to my mother” sounds way too glib to be true.
Ntozake Shange “nothin’ from nothin’ leaves nothin’” Grade: C-minus
A rant. And one that rambles through thickets of sentences like: “a self-identified feminist, my work reflected — & to this day reflects – a sense of urgency in complex examinations of the nature of heterosexual relations in the first decade of the 21st century.”
“Setting My Hair on Fire” by Raphael Kadushin No grade
A gay man writes about a painful crush during his junior year in London in a lovely essay that doesn’t fit into a book that says: “Women everywhere will see themselves in these …. personal narratives.” Kadushin works for the University of Wisconsin Press, and the editor of Mr. Wrong lives in Madison. You have the sense that Brown wanted to shoehorn an acquaintance into the book.
Whitney Otto “Mr. Wrong Meets Mr. Wrong” No grade
Another nice essay that doesn’t quite fit with the others. Instead of describing an ex, Otto repeats a story that a male acquaintance told her about – well, let’s just say it ends with an O. Henry twist. You can’t stop reading this essay but wonder when you’ve finished if the story Otto heard might be an urban legend.
Recommended if … you think Schadenfreude is the best revenge.
Best and Worst Lines: Quoted above.
Editor: Nancy Miller
Published: January 2007
Caveat lector: This review was based on the advance readers’ edition. Some material in the finished book may differ slightly.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog creatd by Janice Harayda, who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of The Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. It reviews books by all kinds of people — “from presidents and kings to the scum of the earth,” as Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine the Telephone Operator might say. It it focuses on achieving parity for books by groups of authors often slighted by other media, including women, poets, and the authors of books from small presses or other countries.