Lessons from an Open Marriage: Book Review of The Arrangement

Sometimes, you just stumble upon a book because you’re supposed to read it. Whether it’s a recommendation from a friend, a random used book you pluck from a dusty shelf or the latest from your favorite author, you often read what you’re meant to read at the time you’re meant to read it.

This “book magic” happens to me a lot with nonfiction—with authors like Jen Sincero, Pam Grout, Danielle LaPorte and Wayne Dyer, to name a few—but, as I’m always happiest with my nose in a novel, I picked up The Arrangement in Ashevlle, while perusing the cutest indie bookstore, Malaprops.

This contemporary comedic novel, written by Sarah Dunn, creator of the new hit show, American Housewife, makes you take a look at your long-term relationship in an entirely new way. A lover of all things relationship-related, I was delighted to dive into this hilarious, inventive, surprising novel.

The premise is fascinating: A long(ish)-term couple embarks on a six-month experiment to have an open marriage in order to preserve their own relationship over the long haul. Because they have become invisible to each other. Because they are parents to a difficult child. Because they operate in the day-to-day and not the dating day-to-day. Because they have reached a level of comfort that no longer gives them the stomach flip.

During the six months, the couple can do whatever they want, whenever they want, without consequence. There will be no discussion, no falling in love, no unsafe sex and no making the other feel bad in any way. At the end of the six months, they go back to their lives, completely unscathed!

As most people know, usually no good comes of this. So why would a solid couple with a demanding child risk it?

“One of the results of turning yourself invisible was that the moment somebody actually paid attention to you, the minute somebody actually looked into your eyes for three seconds too long or touched your arm a few too many times or sent you a mildly flirty email, you though you were in love with him. It didn’t take much.”         

I have experience writing about this subject. It even became my first nonfiction book, The Cheat Sheet: A Clue-by-Clue Guide to Finding Out if He’s Unfaithful.

Besides the intriguing (and wholly realistic) plot of The Arrangement, I feel this book was put into my hands for a plethora of other reasons.

The new novel I am writing deals with a bevy of female characters, and the main character has an autistic child. My editor and I discussed pulling back on the other characters and focusing on the protagonist, but everything in my writerly gut says I need their POVs as well. The trick is figuring out how to slip them in, and when.

The Arrangement deals with a couple of protagonists and a whole host of supporting characters that she simply pops into the plot without explanation or apology—often at the exact time when you’re dying to know what happens with the main couple. It’s a great way to make the reader engaged until the very last page.

And they also have an autistic child.

This is mostly why I don’t read fiction while I’m writing—because I never want to emulate or snag an idea from something already in print. But, it’s beyond helpful to see how each author crafts and constructs and barrels through issues. It’s like a master class in figuring out your own creative construction issues, especially in your genre.

While I thought the book was going one way, it veered another and really demonstrates the power of marriage. It’s a champion for marriage, and in this highly divorce-riddled, multi-marriage world, we could all use a little hope, even if it’s sprinkled with a bit of juicy experimentation—as we find in Sarah’s book—along the way.

My biggest takeaway is the quote below, which sums up marriage perfectly. I shared this with my parents, who just celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary (and they are still in their fifties, so do the math on that one!), and they couldn’t agree more. Marriage is a choice, and it should be a happy one. It’s long and it’s hard and it has its ebbs and flows, but if you’re in a good one, you know it.

If you’re in a good one, it will be the only arrangement you ever need.

“Life is long. And it’s getting longer for most of us. Most people in this country will have three or four marriages in their lifetime. Each one will challenge them and suit them in a different way. The lucky few, the ones who are willing to work at it, will have a handful of very different marriages, all with the same person.” – Constance Waverly, TED Talk