This is the text version of the book review from Episode 5 of The Pageist podcast.
[I received this book for free, but book reviewer’s honor, I’ll tell you what I really think. Listen to episode four of the podcast for my philosophy on free books and the responsibility of the reviewer.]
Jennifer and Ryan Lambert are just over thirty. They were functionally virgins when they got together in their late teens and have a solid, if boring, marriage.
Sex is not really… not really.
They’re seeing one of those therapists that listens more than he talks and who has given them the sort of mantras that would make me roll my eyeballs right out of my head. Things like, ‘Today is the day we jump.’
The therapist was realistic. I wondered if he was based on a real person.
So Ryan and Jennifer are looking for a way to get their something back. Whatever it is that happily married couples are supposed to have. And the sex. That’s important.
Off they go to a Christmas party at the house of one of their few friends—the Lamberts’ lives are constrained in all aspects—there friends’ names are Noah and Barbara.
At this party they meet Bruce and Paige Shepard. The Shepard’s are older, vital and vibrant. Just charm personified. Bruce is the kind of guy Ryan wants to be and Paige is the sort of woman Jennifer wants to be and wants to do other things to. Much to her surprise.
The younger couple spends the party cozied up to the older couple—in mixed sex pairs.
When Ryan and Jennifer inquire after them after the party, Noah and Barbara inform our couple of the tepid marriage that Paige and Bruce are swingers. This of course is a surprise, because didn’t those all go the way of shag carpeting?
But the seed has been planted. Perhaps this is what they need. And the Shepards are human magnets—intelligent, attractive, cultured. You either want to do them or be them. Or do them until you become them. We’ve all met people like this. If you’re around them enough perhaps their magnificence will rub off on you. You just need to rub against them enough.
And so the swinging adventure begins.
It’s an adventure that involves emotional highs and lows, group sex, pegging, and a pretty impressive swingers’ party.
It’s written from both Ryan and Jennifer’s point of view—alternating between them—and moves as quickly as a film. I could easily see this as a movie. An NC-17 rated movie, but a romantic comedy for married couples…who like other married couples. There’s your tag line. Bam.
I thought perhaps it moved too quickly, at first. They’re having problems. They meet Bruce and Paige and within three days they’re swingers. (I really don’t think this is a spoiler—the title is A Life Less Monogamous.) And the novel definitely demonstrates why their tactic isn’t the best one to take.
But then I thought about it and… I don’t know. It makes some kind of sense. When you’ve been looking for some change in your life and working towards that and considering how quickly your mind works when something piques your interest…And your therapist is making you say, ‘Today I change my life.’ I’m going to give it a pass.
Beckett’s ability to capture two different people’s experience of the same relationship and situation is impressive. We also see inside Bruce and Paige’s minds on occasion, though not as frequently, and their thoughts are equally believable.
Beckett addresses the always present ‘myth of equality’. Where men in the poly or swingers community are surprised to find the woman they’re with has so many more offers than they do. This book was clearly written from the point of view of a person with experience in the lifestyle. It rings very true. I’d read certain sections and think, ‘This man has been in this exact place.’ And I don’t mean wedged between some dude and that dude’s wife. He talks about jealousy well.
He doesn’t address how straight dudes deal with other dudes’ dicks, though. Everything I know about swinging comes from this book and a couple podcasts, so not a lot. I’ll be having the author on the show so get set, my friend, because I have questions. I get that women being bi is great. Everyone in the free world thinks that’s hot. But in the scenes where everyone’s in one bed… That’s a lot of appendages in one bed. So many arms and legs and … everything else.
I kept expecting some kind of thought or comment on it and that didn’t happen. Aside from one moment where an extreme activity was proposed but I had the feeling Ryan responded the way he did not because of the nearness of other dude sausage but because of the ‘I didn’t know that activity existed five minutes ago, no thank you I would not like to try that. Run, Forrest, run!’
Speaking of learning about new activities. Something I always enjoy is learning new things and I learned some terminology from this book—soft swap and full swap. Full swap is ‘Here is my spouse and all of their orifices.’ Soft swap is, ‘You may have my spouse, but you do not have access to all of their orifices. No penetration for you!’
The book is pretty funny, too. The first time Jennifer goes down on Paige this is what goes through the older woman’s mind:
Jennifer’s aim and focus may have been erratic and sloppy, but that hardly mattered when she approached her task with such enthusiasm. There were moments when she wished that she would just focus on a spot and stick with it a while, but to complain that this lovely woman was eating ‘too much’ of her pussy? Nah.
I just know this is something Beckett heard from a female friend. This must have been an actual comment from someone. I’m going to ask him when I interview him for the show.
Another part that made me laugh out loud:
‘We don’t have to decide tonight,’ Ryan smiled at her. ‘Want to see what they’re doing tomorrow?’
‘Dinner at the Watkins’.’
‘We have to see regular folk occasionally, Hon,’ said Jennifer with a laugh.
‘Yeah, I suppose,’ said Ryan. ‘But put another way, do we?’
I’m with Ryan. Once you’re used to talking about whatever you want it feels pointless reining it in. (Hi Bean! Bean is my awesome vanilla friend I can talk to about anything. I don’t mean people like you!)
Back to the review, the novel has that wish fulfillment/fantasy aspect where the main character is an average person and literally everyone else is ridiculously wealthy. I noticed it because I used to write stories like that. No fault-finding, here. Just… how do they know these people again? That sort of thing gives people maybe the wrong idea about the financial resources of the general swinger. Unless swingers are actually rich, in which case, for the first time in my life, I may have some regrets about being an asexual lesbian.
As the story progresses, we learn about each of the main characters’ background and how they got to where they current are. I like books like that because it helps you remember in real life that everyone has a story that started long before you came into the picture and no matter where they are on their journey it’s valid. (That doesn’t mean you need to stick around for it if it’s a bad place for you to be.)
Yeah, the book is funny and it’s pretty light—it really is like a rom-com where the person trying to land someone else is already married and their spouse is on-board with the dating. But there’s some depth to it, as well. This conversation near the end of the book between Bruce and Ryan, for example:
‘You know why non-monogamy is scary?’ he asked.
Ryan shook his head. ‘Where do I begin?’
‘True, it is vast.’ Bruce laughed. ‘But specifically. In monogamy we have this feeling of control, right? That somehow the social contract will keep our spouse in check. That this thin membrane will keep the external scaries out.’
Ryan looked at his hands, nodding.
‘Non-monogamy appears to take away that membrane. When we meet newbies, you know what they ask us?’
‘How soon can we fuck you?’
Bruce’s laugh came out genuine this time, and Ryan actually cracked a smile. ‘Before that. They ask “What if my spouse/partner/whatnot falls in love with someone else?”’
This appeared to strike at Ryan’s core, because he focused on Bruce’s face.
‘And I ask them “What’s stopping them from doing that right now?” The answer is invariably that they’re not allowed to. Because monogamy. Like it’s a magic wand making people’s genitals only compatible with each other.’
So it’s fun, but there’s also more going on. I enjoyed A Life Less Monogamous, definitely, and would recommend it really for anyone who enjoys novels about relationships and sex. It definitely made me want to read his first book, Life on the Swingset, which is a memoir about being, shall we say, non-traditionally sexual. It’s also the name of his website—Life on the Swingset.com.
There is one type of person I would not recommend this book to and that’s anyone who has a problem with alcohol. If you’re trying to stop drinking or having difficulty moderating you really shouldn’t read this. That may sound like a joke to some people, but the characters in this book drink a lot. They’re not alcoholics—I just think Beckett knows an ungodly amount about alcohol. People are always talking about wines and scotches and Ryan makes a Pineapple Upside Down martini on more than one occasion and I want one even though there is literally nothing in it I can have.
I don’t drink because I have an upper GI thing where alcohol turns my stomach into a Mount Vesuvius of hydrochloric acid—so I have a visceral reaction to the very thought of consuming alcohol and even I was beginning to miss drinking wine and scotch while reading this book. I found myself thinking: ‘Surely one or two glasses… Oh right, I’ll want to die, right.’
His characters didn’t seem to get drunk as frequently as I would have expected for the amount they were chucking back, though. I was legless just reading it. It reminded me of E.O. Higgins’ Conversations with Spirits—another book where everyone was drinking all the time. I believe those people were functionally drunk, though. These characters seem fine nearly all the time.
Speaking of seeming fine, last week on the website I reviewed a film by Gaspar Noe called Love that took a decidedly grimmer view of non-monogamy than A Life Less Monogamous so it was nice to see a happier take on the situation, particularly since I’m at the beginning of my own non-traditional relationship fun-times. If you like depressing films with actual sex and threesomes and such (that you can watch on Netflix!) Gaspar Noe’s Love. Don’t watch it if you’re considering opening up your relationship.
In the coming weeks the author, Cooper S. Beckett will be on the show and I am definitely looking forward to chatting with him.