March 16, 2018

Tag Team Review: Jenny Block’s Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage

If any genre has been cruising for a bruising, it’s “creative” autobiography (read: Margaret B. Jones’s Love and Consequences). So far, Jenny Block’s Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage (June, Seal Press) hasn’t been exposed as a pack of lies, but that doesn’t mean our second female duo in the Tag Team series used kid gloves. The proof, book brutalists, is in Amelia’s and Julie’s graphic photos. Holy carnage, Batman!

Contender No. 1: Ameila Brunskill, liaison librarian for the sciences at Dickinson College, so radiates sweetness and light that I expected her to decline my invitation to draw book blood. But this new Xpress reviewer done me proud—and maimed a galley in the process (a first!).

As a blushing bride-to-be, I was amused and also alarmed to find that Heather had assigned me a memoir of an open marriage. Haunted by the thought of being surrounded by inquisitive coworkers, stammering that I was reviewing the book, not doing research, I quickly determined that this would not be a title to tout in public.

However, in heroic service to my profession, I took on this book, and it was soon evident that mine was not the only challenge at hand. Jenny Block faces the unenviable task of explaining why open marriage is not that wild and zany of an idea while keeping the text exotic enough to warrant the reader’s attention. For the most part, she succeeds, coming across as very approachable, even when she describes experiences and decisions that are quite unusual. She also raises some good points along the way. Her discussion of the hypocrisy of such strong societal opposition to open marriages when extramarital affairs are so profligate is particularly intriguing.

The book works best when Block concentrates on describing her own experiences wrestling with her sexuality and desires, both in and outside of her committed partnership. When her focus shifts to broader discussions of societal norms, she fares less well—at times her writing resembles a tepid version of a women’s studies 101 text. While Block generally makes a solid effort to avoid alienating readers who are part of more traditional arrangements, she is clearly dubious about the long-term viability of monogamous relationships, which can be grating for the less jaded.

Is Open an engaging read, likely to promote discussion and perhaps heated debate? Certainly. A suitable engagement present? Hmm… Go instead with the slightly risqué cookie cutters.

Contender No. 2: The indomitable Julianne Smith of the Ypsilanti District Library, a star child-rearing reviewer in the print magazine, here makes her spectacular online debut. Although she was photo shy at the beginning of the process, my nudging and the help of her Photoshop-skilled friend resulted in the first themed book wrestler images. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Countess of Book Blood.

As someone who reviews child development and parenting literature, I was thrilled to receive the galley of a memoir from Heather. To discover that it was the story of a happily married woman who continues to enjoy multiple sex partners was even more exciting—talk about a different take on play activities! Block’s book clearly requires a different mindset, but as most of us who have been in longterm relationships and marriages know, there does come a point—yes, admit it—when your spouse is about as exciting as a peanut butter sandwich. Granting the author that much, I approached Open with, well, an open mind.

This is no nympho-tells-all, as Block is relatively typical. After exploring her sexuality in college, she met her husband, Christopher, which “felt like the stars were aligning,” and they happily settled down. As time went on, however, Block felt the inevitable tug of attraction toward other people. She didn’t love her husband less, but she craved satisfaction from others, in addition to more frequent encounters. She didn’t want to leave her marriage because she and Christopher are wonderful partners, parents, and soul mates, so what gave?

Years of research and reflection led to her eventually accepting both her love for her husband and her desire for variety. Seeking honesty and truth above deception and betrayal, Block made a proposal to her husband: Let’s open our marriage. Block skillfully blends her story with research on sexuality, monogamy, adultery, and divorce (sources wisely appended). She makes compelling arguments against the biology of monogamy, argues that our modern social configurations are a recent invention (post 1940), and cites adultery and divorce rates of 40 to 50 percent.

Her journey has not been free of rough patches, however. Although Christopher is stunningly secure, in a poignant moment he admits that one of his biggest concerns is overhearing some guy say to another, “I fucked that guy’s wife.” Her greatest fear is that people won’t let their children come over to play with their daughter. She relays reactions from family members, friends, ex-friends, and the inevitable solicitations from men who are “sadly misinformed that an open marriage means there are no standards or preferences.”

Block doesn’t seek converts and admits that open marriage is not for everyone, stressing that it “only works if both partners are on board.” She is calmly persuasive, illustrating how others’ reactions to her marriage is similar to “how society struggled with interracial marriage and how it is still wrangling with same-sex marriage,” wondering what it says about us “as a society [that] we refuse to face the reality of just how unsuccessful our most common social construct is?” For, after all, “love and sex … are not constant companions.”

This honest and compelling memoir should spark a respectful dialogue about the underground status of open marriages. Some readers will feel relief, many will be aroused or curious, and others will definitely be insulted. It’ll be tricky to do reader’s advisory with Open, although it will make a spectacular discussion book. Personally, I can’t wait for Heather to have a subway sighting of this one.

This is brave, brave stuff, colleagues. Buy it. Read it. Love it, if you can.