It was the cover that got me: the cool blue comforter, the rumpled white sheets, pillows with suggestive indentations on them. For several months, I had been meaning to check The Arrangement off my to-be-read list, and it seemed like an appropriate beach read. And it is that–a good beach read. There’s no better place to scoff and roll my eyes at imaginary characters than at the beach. I didn’t much care what happened to the characters in the end, but there were enough nuggets of comedy to keep me reading.
That comedic relief prevented the novel from taking itself too seriously, which was a pleasant surprise when I realized The Arrangement was going to lack that dishy Gossip Girl/Sex and the City quality. The church chicken massacre towards the end of the novel is what I’ve come to refer to as the climax, and, as gruesome as it was, the humor was evident.
Of course, the humor is needed in Beekman–an upscale suburb just outside the city–where aggressive stay-at-home-moms abound and aloof husbands pretend their lives are good. Some people have their shit together a little more than others, but everyone has a certain modicum of dysfunction. Owen and Lucy McIntire have an autistic son who requires special care, but their marriage appears to be fine. Even they think so. But when two friends suggest they’re going to try having an open marriage, Owen and Lucy decide they should try it as well.
Owen finds a partner immediately–the gregarious, overly-familiar Izzy–who the reader can tell is bat-shit crazy from the get go. Dunn frustratingly tries to make Owen seem like a good guy in the end by having Izzy see a doctor before he continues to sleep with her for fear of fathering a child with this clingy woman who “chores” him after every sexual encounter they have. He won’t do tasks around his own house, but not pissing off Izzy is more important to his sex life than pissing his wife off. In a weird twist of fate, Izzy has advanced stage uterine cancer, which she would not have known if Owen hadn’t pushed her to see the doctor. Just for everyone in the cheap seats: THIS IS A TERRIBLE THING TO SUGGEST. This is not closure. This does not negate the moral conundrum of the entire novel. Izzy’s letter is a shitty cop-out ending that does not address any of the serious concerns of Lucy and Owen’s marriage. In the end, I still didn’t know what was wrong with them, other than the fact that Owen is a smug asshole and Lucy should have left him.
Lucy should have left Owen before the whole “arrangement” even started. But I guess that’s my personal judgment coming into effect. I couldn’t help but picture the marriages of people in my immediate family, and I have to say–all the women I know would have chewed that motherfucker out in a hot second. In fact, they would have chewed out a lot of the characters in this book. It was incredibly difficult for me to suspend my judgment for the sake of empathy, and a good book, no matter the class or tribe affiliation of the characters involved will allow you to empathize. I can only surmise, then, that The Arrangement is not a good book. One of the only redeeming facts of this book is that, while The Arrangement is a novel for and about white people of a certain class, Dunn makes it clear that she doesn’t want it to be anything else, and, in several instances, makes fun of it for that very reason. This circles back to the “not taking itself too seriously” thing.
In addition to how insufferable the characters are, Dunn seemed to have had a difficult time integrating subplots into the overarching narrative. The story of Gordon Allen–Beekman’s resident bigot billionaire–and his wife is the only story that’s worth telling for its ultimate tale of redemption (and its humor), but the other threads fail so convincingly to integrate into the main narrative that they aren’t worth mentioning. Dunn attempted to introduce new character perspectives more than halfway through the book, and only followed one subplot for a couple pages. These stories failed to advance the larger narrative and weren’t particularly well-crafted.
The Arrangement is ultimately a mindless beach read that won’t anger the reader too much if he or she refrains from investing in Dunn’s characters. Yes, they’re weak-willed and confused, but at least their wealthy. Watching wealthy people do weird, amoral things in fiction is a keen pastime of mine. It helps me not to take things too seriously…alas, that seems to be the driving theme behind this book: it will not be taken seriously.