"We tell ourselves stories in order to live," goes a Joan Didion quote I like. "...We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience."
Many people grow up anticipating that marriage, stability and "happily ever after" will be the story they get to tell—but what happens when life has other plans?
Our culture doesn't have many narratives about what life is like for childless, unmarried older women, besides the stigma of "spinster." Brooklyn-based author Frances Kuffel, a Missoula native, details dating as a never-married 50-something in her new book Love Sick: A Memoir of Searching for Mr. Good Enough.
In a series of short, diary-style anecdotes, Kuffel talks about working odd jobs and making ends meet while she hooks up with various odd characters she meets through dating sites. The reader in a similar life position who wants commiseration might find a lot to identify with here. "It is unhappy dating that, as Tolstoy says of families, is unique in its unhappiness and therefore lends itself to storytelling," she writes. She's also frank about depression, wavering self-esteem and an ongoing battle with her size.
Kuffel, a University of Montana graduate, is a seasoned memoirist and poet. She gained a lot of media attention and positive reviews for 2004's Passing for Thin, about her eating disorders and substantial weight loss, but not as much attention for subsequent works where she talked about gaining a lot of the weight back. Her writing is at once conversational and odd; her sentences twist and turn in unexpected ways. Poetry shows in her eye for capturing detail and memorable visual aspects of a scene, like when she recalls "the pitcher of ice water with floating tangerine quarters in the lobby of our hotel" and a garden with "prayer wheels in the cool daffodil light" from a visit to Arizona.
I was completely prepared to root for Love Sick, but unfortunately, the anecdotes don't add up to a cohesive or compelling thread. It's partially a drawback of the diary style, which leaps between time periods and transitions abruptly between ideas. Kuffel's series of dates with weird and charmless men just gets sad rather than funny, and makes me struggle to remember why you'd go on a date at all. We rarely learn why any of these men were worth the time in the first place. She describes spending five years hoping that a former crack addict, whom she's slept with twice, will decide to date her. Her size attracts a guy with a feeding fetish. Another dude turns out to be an Internet scammer. These things might be funny, except that they come off as dramatic and serious. There's some pettiness, too, on her part, like when she mocks divorced men who are absorbed in the accomplishments of their college-bound daughters. (Divorce, she notes, is "like bronchitis: At some point, everybody's had it.") After each encounter, she runs back to her dog, family and gay friends for sweeter, lighthearted moments that offer respite from the joyless man-hunting. I found more honesty and genuine emotion in her reminisces about her childhood in Missoula and love of her father than in any other passages.
In a lot of ways, Love Sick reminds me of friends who are always using poor judgment with relationships and always baffled that things turn out badly; some women—and men—just have a need for attention that overrides good sense. Kuffel acknowledges, time and time again, that she "auditions" to be a girlfriend without asking herself if the dude is really someone she wants to be with. "I cleaned my apartment—for men. I had my hair and eyebrows done—for men," she writes, and goes on to muse, "But maybe I didn't need a guy. Maybe I needed me." I was optimistic that this would be a turning point of the book, but she doesn't take her own advice.
While I didn't expect Love Sick to end with a marriage or even a great life-changing epiphany—and I don't think it should need one—I wish this book found some kind of resolution. The "searching" in the book's title implies some sort of "finding" will happen, but by the end, Kuffel doesn't seem to have found any more wisdom or security than before. Real life doesn't always make for a tidy story, of course, but I can't help but wonder if a little more time and perspective would have helped shape a different narrative thread.
Love Sick made me thankful that I've been taught to approach dating from a different perspective. I'm aware that finding a great committed relationship doesn't guarantee self-actualization or fulfillment, and conversely, being single isn't a guarantee that you'll be miserable. Happily ever after, as experiences like Kuffel's ultimately prove, isn't a useful story for most of us.