I’ve just finished reading Monogamy by Sue Miller. I’ve read a few of her books so I knew I was in for a great read, but to be honest it took me a few chapters to get into it. I think this is because I’ve been reading some very undemanding books (aka trashy) and this one needed a bit more concentration. As I’ve mentioned before, I sometimes find it hard to start new books.
Monogamy is about marriage, fidelity, and grief. It’s about what happens when you lose someone you love, but then find out that they aren’t necessarily the person you thought they were. It’s beautifully written, but I found some of it confronting. Not only did it make me think about my own relationships and how they have affected my life, I also found some of the explicit descriptions of their physical relationship disconcerting. Not because they had any weird sexual proclivities, more because I’m just squeamish about sex scenes in books and movies. I can watch murder scenes (albeit with my hands over my eyes, peeking through my fingers), but sex scenes sometimes make me squirm in my seat.
In the world of romance writing, books with explicit sex scenes are known as “open door” books. You follow the main characters into the bedroom and get to read a graphic description of what follows. Books that leave you at the door are described as “closed door” books, for obvious reasons. The door is shut firmly in your face and you have to use your imagination. I don’t think these labels apply to literary fiction, but romance readers are very picky about their books and there are lots of rules.
Personally, I would rather move on with the story of “what happened next” rather than linger in the bedroom for too long. There are exceptions, of course. In Emily Maguire’s book Love Objects, there is a very graphic bedroom scene near the beginning of the book which is integral to the story. The book wouldn’t make sense without knowing what happened in the bedroom.
I was talking to a friend about this recently and she agreed she finds long descriptions of sex to be irksome. Not because we are prudish, but because they simply don’t add to the narrative. Also, they aren’t necessarily very romantic in the truest sense. If you think about what constitutes a ‘romantic evening’, then that depends on where you are in life and what makes you feel happy and loved. It could easily be very romantic to see your partner doing the washing up! No roses or champagne required in that scenario. I have to admit that I’m a sucker for romance when it’s handled sensitively. We both agreed that the most wildly romantic movie in the world is The English Patient. Check out this clip and see if you disagree. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how the sex scenes are handled, but in the film they are beautiful. Also, Ralph Fiennes is unbelievably handsome, so that helps!
In “Monogamy”, I suspect that the sex scenes were included because they were illustrative of their relationship. They showed that her husband, (despite his unfaithfulness) had been a generous and caring lover. But if they make the book into a movie, I hope they leave some things to our imagination.