ARC Review: The Marriage Sabbatical

ARC Review: The Marriage Sabbatical

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If you had told me several years ago that I would start reading romance novels, I would have scoffed at you. While I read nearly every genre out there, there are some genres that I just don’t. (Okay, so I always make exceptions for great literature, no matter the genre—I guess unless it’s too hard core.) Until a few years ago, this banned-genre list included romance. I mean, I read classic romance and plenty of books with romance subplots, but not the stuff that you find splashed across table displays in big bookstores or crammed creased-spine to creased-spine in used bookstores in the section prominently labeled “romance.” Perhaps it was the dawn of the fun, colorful, cartoony covers that helped me make the transition (as opposed to dull, dark, photo covers with bare-chested athletes being embraced by manicured women in loosening bustiers). Like something between women’s literature and old-fashioned trade paperback romance, the new romance books I was seeing didn’t have to be boddice rippers. And they could be well-written (enough). Which is how I met my first Emily Henry novel. And how I began the tradition of reading a “light” (almost always romance) novel while on residencies and vacas.

That’s a long introduction to a book that I have yet to mention. Sorry. But I did it to make two points. One, I do read this genre sometimes, though I am extremely picky about it. And two, I am not actually a romance reader, as in I would never make my username romancereader743 or normally head straight for romance lists or sections. I have limited experience in the genre. And I made those points to say this: The Marriage Sabbatical by Lian Dolan is, from what I can tell, on the good end of the romance writing spectrum and is going to appeal to and be enjoyed by lots of modern women (maybe some men?). It’s clear and full of cute characters and interesting places—has a great premise—and a few almost-steamy scenes. It also has the women’s fiction thing going on with some sort of moral and positivity and feminism-ish thinking. Readers seem to consistently like Dolan, and Marriage Sabbatical has already become a bestseller (since its release less than a month ago). But it turns out it is not quite my cup of tea.

Jason and Nicole met in college when their two, very different worlds collided one fateful night over a shared, musical tragedy. (Like, where were you when…?) Now it’s more than a quarter of a century later and they have made those two worlds into one, survived some real ups and downs (in-laws, careers), renovated a Portland home, and raised two kids. Right after those two kids head off for post-grad experiences abroad, Jason and Nic end up being pinned down for a dinner with their new neighbors and their TMI, which includes the revelation that they have a 500-mile rule: more than 500 miles from each other and they can have sex with whomever they want, no questions asked. Days later, when Jason and Nic find themselves unexpectedly facing nine months on two different continents, they make a deal with each other that is much closer to those ridiculous neighbors than they would have thought possible…

It took me a minute to get around to reading this, as it has taken me some time to get to any and all ARCs I have taken on this year. Which is hugely the fault of me joining six-plus book clubs. Yeah, that’ll do it. Also to me being ADHD. Sorry.

Here’s the thing: the premise is sexy in a seriously modern way. It’s sensational, a draw for the book. But the real story here has little to do with sex and everything to do with a realistic marriage and a pretty average couple. Which means the sex-rule will make people pick up the book and take it home (while causing many people to also pass it over–I am 100 per cent sure). But the whole sex thing literally didn’t even need to be in the book. The couple in question are dealing with other things, entirely: Jason is dealing with grief and simultaneously a much-deserved vacation and mid-life crisis; Nicole is dealing with an empty nest and an identity crisis, discovering who she is without kids (and a husband) and re-discovering her dreams and passions. The sex got thrown in there to make the plot more interesting. It’s so not about that, though.

And then you end up with readers like me, who just wish it wasn’t there. I don’t really get the appeal of opening a marriage and I found myself annoyed at their sexual experiences (or lack thereof) apart, feeling like they needlessly complicated matters, playing with fire when they totally intended not to burn anything down. In other words, I am too old and experienced to believe that this whole sitch would work except in rare and random cases. Why gamble when you have everything to lose and almost nothing to gain? I’m too practical. And it turns out, old fashioned. (Don’t worry, fidelity’ll come back in, ‘cause it rules. And it is a type of turn-on, a type of romance itself.) The only thing in me that wanted this part of the plot to stay was the one that enjoys the challenging of cultural constructs that have been too restrictive. Because they have done a lot of harm, and I enjoyed thinking about how things might be different and how people’s business is none of our business. (Likewise, being all self-indulgent and flaky will also cause a lot of harm to the next generations. The pendulum continues to swing and it will forevermore.)

But who cares, right? The point is an interesting, fictional book. Which leads me to another reason this book was not my thing: it is so, so very fantastical. Yeah, the characters, places, lives lived were recognizable, even relatable. But there was always a bridge too far, like in every scene, and I stopped being able to take it. They just had so much money. And perfect friends. And they worked out every day. And had all the things. And their kids were both studying abroad but they could afford a sabbatical. And his work was cool with that. And all the supporting characters said and did all the things right. And people always said their honest feelings. And emotions didn’t get all caught up in affairs. And everything was tied up with a giant bow. I am also sure that many readers will love all of this, because, yes, romance is often extremely fantastical. It is supposed to be. Romance readers usually want to be whisked away to some other place where things are perfect and sexy and, duh, romantic. But not me, I guess. At least, not in this way. It was more eye-rolling than enticing or, well, dreamy.

And it’s true that I said the writing was clear. The book was produced well, too. Edited well. Did all the things. But between the writing style and the lack of drama, I was a little, um, bored. It was too cozy and too straight-forward for me. But other people love cozy. And other people don’t want to read poetry or have to work for the narrative. Sigh. I get it. There is a place where the grass is greener and a happy medium is met. Emily Henry is on the outskirts of this place. I have a whole list of recommended books that I feel land in this space and a few of them are probably considered romances. Book club reads. Women’s literature.

I would recommend Marriage Proposal for plenty of people. I would not recommend it for myself (which is a moot point, at this point, or maybe I mean impossible, or anachronistic).

I want to talk about Georgia O’Keefe for one second, before I let you go. I don’t think it’s an accident that Nicole ends up in New Mexico nor that she takes us to an art world that includes the art of and references to Georgia O’Keeffe. I mean, Dolan talks about it directly in the book, but O’Keefe lived in two places, in her marriage, and she supposedly kept her life in New Mexico separate from her marriage in New York. From what I understand, O’Keeffe was in what had become (at least) a toxic marriage in a very patriarchal time. Also, it seems that when this stage of their marriage was in full-swing, it wasn’t really much of a marriage anymore. It is cool to see a strong-willed woman carving a life out for herself at a distance from the husband who is stifling and likely abusing her as well as distancing her career from his. But while it makes sense to bring this story into Marriage Sabbatical as a thread, their situations appear to be vastly different and there was no going back for O’Keeffe.

I also want to point out a book which kept coming up when I was looking around on the internet for stuff about Marriage Sabbatical. It’s a book by the same name, but with a subtitle: The Marriage Sabbatical: The Journey That Brings You Home, by Cheryl Jarvis. It is a nonfiction book published way back in 2002, a sort of memoir and self-help book that contains 55 women’s stories about taking time away from their marriage in order to find themselves or pursue a dream. Looks kinda interesting. I don’t know if any of them have anything to do with opening their marriage, but I can’t imagine all of them do.

This book was easy to read. It delivered on several fronts: it was sweet and interesting and went down smooth. I could relate to it in many ways and wanted to know where it was headed and what was going to happen; I mean, even the hook of a premise got me. In the end, it wasn’t my fave. I was a little bored and a little too jaded to get sucked into the story. Also, the open marriage idea was a turn-off for me and for whatever reason I did not find the (few and mild) spicy scenes to be spicy, at all. But I can see how many readers would enjoy this book and it’s a safe investment of your time if this kind of book is what usually speaks to you: a cozy, women’s lit kind of romance without too many literary trappings.

Lian Dolan is a writer and podcaster. She is one of five sisters who have a women’s, talk-show podcast (that began as a radio show) called Satellite Sisters. She has also written articles for various mags, including O Magazine. Her website can be found HERE.

Her books, which look to be all romance, have reviews that hover right below 4 stars, consistently (which is not at all bad). They are:

  • Helen of Pasadena
  • Elizabeth the First Wife
  • The Sweeney Sisters
  • Lost and Found in Paris

This isn’t a midlife crisis; this is a midlife triumph” (p180).

“Her friends were here to see her, not judge her” (p187).

“…he found no conversation among his parenting peers more tiresome than college acceptance. There was a place for everyone, even if it didn’t rank in the top ten. Why his generation of parents found their own self-worth in their child’s ACT scores or college acceptance record, he’d never understand” (p205).

I think it’s so foolish for people to want to be happy. Happy is so momentary—you’re happy for an instant and then you start thinking again. Interest is the most important thing in life; happiness is temporary, but interest is continuous” (p233).

“Those Gen Zers, they don’t care about precedent or hierarchy. It’s relationship anarchy out there” (p256).

“Was that a sign of aging? The desire not to fuss? He was losing his edge” (p257).