Many fans of the television series Sex and the City are shocked and disappointed when they read the Candace Bushnell book that inspired it. In the print version of the tale, there is no supportive sisterhood of single friends, no light-hearted banter, no suggestion that anyone actually finds fulfillment in cocktails, casual sex, and Manolo Blahniks — only a cast of cynical, lonely, and alienated men and women jaded by the predatory New York dating scene. A recent collection of “True Stories of Breakups, Bad Relationships, and Broken Hearts” paints an equally harsh picture of the modern battle of the sexes, summed up succinctly in its title: Love is a Four-Letter Word.
Like most autobiographical writing, the collection is revealing — just not in the way it’s intended to be. In his introduction, Neal Pollack, former sex columnist and author of the parenting memoir Alternadad, asserts that the pieces do “what good relationship writing should do: illuminate larger truths about the human condition, about our foibles, fears, weaknesses, insecurities, and passions.” What the collection actually does is illuminate smaller truths about some particularly postmodern predicaments. Pollack more accurately describes the anthology as “the blossoming of a generational point of view.” This generation — men and women now in their mid-to-late 30s — is the first to fully reap the unintended consequences of the sexual revolution. They came of age in the morning after the Boomers’ carefree romp. And, in the words that one contributor uses to describe a one-night stand, “morning brought hangovers and unpleasant truths.”
One of these unpleasant truths is that feminism hasn’t quite delivered on its promises — at least in the realm of romantic relationships. Michelle Greene begins her essay with the frank admission that “by the time I turned thirty, my life in New York had taken on a desperate edge.” A tale of a toxic relationship follows, which she rationalizes this way: “What I wanted were street skills: some sort of power that would allow me to engage in sexual drama without getting burned.” This path to female empowerment eludes her as it does others — such as self-identified feminist Maud Newton, who theorizes, “maybe I didn’t need to fall for every guy whose bed I woke up in,” only to fall very hard for the next guy whose bed she wakes up in. In story after story, drugs and alcohol prove necessary armor in the battle to divorce sex from emotion: “rivers of Stoli and heaps of cocaine” are consumed, “brain cells” are “annihilated.” But no matter how “drug-addled” and “s***-faced” the encounter, none of the protagonists successfully ward off vulnerability and heartbreak.
Perhaps part of the reason these women fail to find commitment-free sex liberating is that they continue to harbor desires for monogamous love, marriage, and children. D. E. Rasso relates how, after weeks of repairing to the room of an older college classmate for sex that left her “bruised, scratched, and — one time — bleeding,” she finally mustered the courage to inquire of him if they were “going out.” His reply was, “No. Of course we aren’t. . . . I’m at a point in my life where monogamy isn’t my style.” She was crushed.
Michelle Greene suddenly realized that her cheating, womanizing boyfriend of years “wasn’t the guy I wanted to marry” — but only after a pregnancy scare on a hike in the Himalayas, to which he responded, “Oh man. Look at where we are. What do you want me to do?” Said Sayrafiezadeh tells the story of a 34-year-old girlfriend who wanted his baby — though not necessarily marriage — and gave him a year to comply. He dumped her at the end of it.
The looming backdrop to the majority of these stories is divorce. If families are mentioned at all, they’re broken. Kate Christensen’s openness as a teenager to an attempted seduction by her 36-year-old high-school teacher is not unrelated to the fact that her mother had recently jettisoned the stepfather she called Dad. She acknowledges that as a “fatherless girl” she was “vulnerable prey.” In the middle of telling the tale of a relationship that she remembers mostly for its “mutual callousness that bordered on violence,” Maud Newton lets drop the fact that her stepfather “did nauseating things” to her. Her boyfriend happened to have an unmarried mother with a penchant for pornography. It’s hardly surprising, then, that this pair formed a dysfunctional match.
The stories aren’t written exclusively by women — the male heterosexual, homosexual, and transsexual perspectives are all pointedly included — but even the male-authored pieces tend to highlight the ways in which women are disadvantaged by the supposedly leveled modern playing field. For one thing, they must wait patiently while men their age leisurely drift along through a prolonged adolescence.
In Dan Kennedy’s case, this process of self-discovery took “a decade and some change.” In the meantime he dated someone who “was completely cool to be around when she had been drinking.” George Singleton can’t bring himself to blame the live-in girlfriend who broke it off when she realized that “it was hopeless to wait around” for him to “quit drinking” and “be kinder” to those close to him. Still, in retaliation he got drunk and urinated in her cat’s litter box. Said Sayrafiezadeh met the woman who would demand a baby of him “at a moment of desperation in my life,” and eventually became disillusioned with their relationship — and with her “disappointingly small breasts.”
Despite the real pain and suffering catalogued in these stories, there’s a striking lack of passion for a collection purportedly about the agonies of heartbreak. The essays are sprinkled with statements like “soon after we merged households, we stopped having sex altogether,” “the sex gets boring for you both . . . you stop having sex entirely,” and “we had sex, mostly because there was nothing else to do.” This sterility encompasses everything from casual hookups to ambiguous serial sleepovers to lengthy if half-hearted cohabiting relationships. It seems that treating sex as meaningless and people as objects leads ultimately to boredom.
The flipside of this boredom is unrelenting narcissism. Excessive self-regard is the essence of this type of confessional writing, in which significant others figure only as supporting actors in the authors’ personal drama — as stepping stones on the road to their self-actualization. The problem is it amounts to navel-gazing for its own sake; readers are left feeling involuntarily voyeuristic and dissatisfied. Yet the distaste that Love is a Four-Letter Word evokes is actually to its credit — this unappealing and honest account is much needed after the glamorous and implausibly happy endings of Sarah Jessica Parker and company’s Sex and the City.
– Katherine Connell is assistant to the editor of National Review.