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The most interesting figure in The Arrangement is pundit Constance Waverly, quoted at the start of each chapter from her books, her articles for the Huffington Post, or her TV appearances. She argues that monogamous marriages can never work and open marriages would be a good option if society would be more accepting of them. It's a tempting view, at least for some -- generally people who have seen how difficult long term relationships are.
Sarah Dunn's novel The Arrangement can be read as an argument against open marriages, setting out the many problems that they invite. The central figures are transplanted Brooklynites Lucy and Owen who have moved upstate to a town on the Hudson River, which Dunn calls "Beekman." They have a young son Wyatt who is unusual and probably on an Autistic spectrum. Coping with his difficult behavior has put a lot of pressure on both his parents. When they hear about another couple trying an open marriage, they joke about it at first and then start to take the idea seriously. They agree to do it for 6 months. Owen compares it to the Amish Rumspringa for the young people: a limited time where they are free of the conventional rules of their society. As Dunn reveals at the start, both Lucy and Owen look back on this decision many years later and wonder what possessed them to make such a move.
Dunn shows the small town and the tensions between those who grew up there and those who moved in from the city. One of the families are Gordon and Kelly, and their son Rocco. Gordon is a conservative billionaire in his 70s with several ex-wives, and Kelly had been a cocktail waitress, half his age. Their marriage is already in trouble, and Gordon's huge wealth is a complicating factor. Gordon had chosen Beekman to live because it is a regular town with regular people, but many people start acting differently when money is around.
We meet friends of Owen and Lucy, and see their various many trials dealing with Wyatt who often becomes oppositional. We see both of them embark on new sexual relationships and see how great they feel at first. They agree to keep their experiences private from each other and from other people, but inevitably it affects their behavior and mood, and other people learn of what they are doing or hear some gossip. They originally hope for emotionless sex outside of their marriage, but of course their relationships become complicated and strong feelings become involved.
So The Arrangement has lots of drama but the tone is mostly light and often comic. The richest source of humor is not the open marriage but the tensions in the town, especially when one of the teachers at the local elementary school declares they are transitioning from a man to a woman, with political fights between different groups of parents. There is one particular set piece which is very nicely done.
Lucy and Owen are sympathetic figures and we can feel empathy for the problems they experience and the struggles they go through. Many of the other characters are more harshly satirized, and they seem more pathetic. Both conservatives and liberals are held up for ridicule. While Lucy and Owen's arrangement is clearly depicted as a piece of folly, the book portrays regular marriage as hopeless as the open marriage advocate Constance Waverly says it is. Despite the mean streak, it's a story well told that addresses a lot of modern issues regarding sex and marriage.
The unabridged audiobook is performed with plenty of energy by Ellen Archer. The version I had had strange editing problems where phrases or sentences got repeated occasionally.
© 2017 Christian Perring
Christian Perring has regularly taught a course in the Philosophy of Sex and Love, and hopes to do so again at some point.