What purports to be an unflinchingly, devastatingly honest look at the author’s marriage—and the institution of American marriage in general—instead reveals its layers of deceit, even self-deception.
There must be some domestic discord in the air. Thematically, this memoir by writing professor and literary essayist Ponteri shares much with the recent Judd Apatow film, This is 40, in which the director cast his wife and daughters in a marital comedy drawn from their real life, a movie that even those who found it often funny considered dark and edgy, often uncomfortable. “The phrase married man suggests a man who cannot love other women, a man doomed to loneliness,” writes the author, who confesses “the best sex I’ve ever had is in my head.” And his head is where this memoir necessarily unfolds, as he combines every woman he desires in the way he no longer does his wife into the singular Frannie, “a composite. Frannie is every girl my wife is not. Frannie is the other woman I draw into my fantasy world, every woman to which I masturbate, every woman I ogle.” Frannie is also the focus of a manuscript to which the author devoted “90 minutes a day, five days a week, all this time spent exploring our marriage separate from my wife,” a manuscript found by his wife. She understandably felt betrayed, yet did the author really betray her with a woman who didn’t exist? Even as it explores the layers of truth that are possible within a memoir and the inventions and distortions of memory on which it depends, the writing suffers when it moves from the author’s marriage to marriage itself, the “tight, toxic silence around marriage” that results in “not only our personal failures at marriage but our culture’s collective failure at marriage, the failure of an institution.”
As this personal essay veers toward polemic, its humorless author seems a little too proud of his bravery at voicing the unspeakable, shattering the taboo.