365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy by Charla Muller with Betsy Thorpe. New York: The Berkeley Publishing Group, 2008. 288 pages.
Charla Muller’s epigraph for 365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy is from dramatist Jean Anouilh: “To say yes, you have to sweat and roll up your sleeves and plunge both hands into life up to the elbows.” Out of its context, Anouilh’s quotation summarizes Charla Muller’s attitude toward marital sex: It’s a chore and a bore. That is why, on the occasion of her husband’s 40th birthday, she, in the spirit of self-sacrifice, offers him what she calls “The Gift” — sex every day for the next year. After pages of overwrought mutual analysis about the implications, Brad Muller accepts. In one short chapter, the reader is introduced to what seems to be the most passionless marriage on the planet.
The rest of 365 Nights (give or take a few — mustn’t have sex during menstruation, for example) rarely delves into sex or even intimacy, physical or emotional. Our most penetrating look into the Mullers’ sex life comes when Charla says, “Wow, that was really nice” (or “yummy”) and Brad says, “Could you pretend you’re enjoying it?” to which Charla replies, “How ’bout you just close your eyes.” Between these flashes of profound love, Charla tirelessly fills the reader in on her rather narrow view of relationships, marriage, parenting, being a working mother (she works two days a week), and how giving her husband what he wants (“The Gift”) has somehow made them stronger as a couple. It’s not the intimacy itself that seems to bring them closer together, but the sense of sacrifice and the willingness to work to overcome the obstacles — not only Charla’s dislike of sex (which she seems to believe she shares with every married mother), but logistics such as work, children, activities, and the need for private time.
Perhaps married women with children who see their husbands as “sperm donors” and “providers,” as Charla writes of some of her friends, will relate to her and her view of love, marriage, and life. Undoubtedly, many will find that she validates the sexual ennui that can set in during any long-term relationship. From my single, childless perspective, she offers no insights, not even as to the underlying reasons she makes every effort to avoid sex with the man she loves and why getting ready for sex means, “I just continue lying there” (prompting her husband to say, “Could you pretend you’re interested in this?”).
When the year of “The Gift” is over, Brad seems happy because he will continue to get sex more frequently (although not every day), and Charla is happy because her husband is more content and her marriage is more solid — and, to me, as free of passion as ever. Charla writes about some of the benefits of sex — it provides exercise and offers improved communication for example (she likes to talk to Brad about the mundane during the act, we learn). She mentions greater emotional intimacy, but she doesn’t convey it or what it means. She touches on the surface of the issues, but is unable or is afraid to say anything meaningful beyond the obvious. While she lies back and gives “The Gift,” she cannot bring herself to mention that she finds any physical pleasure or emotional joy in the act itself (other than that it’s “nice”). She and Brad seem to be well suited to each other, but they could be brother and sister Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert from Anne of Green Gables for all the passion shown in their marriage — with or without sex.
Charla’s perky style is annoying, and her values, which she assumes we all share, are painfully shallow. She disdains ugly mini-vans (and her beloved children’s energy future) in favor of a “cool” SUV. A “polite feminist,” she believes that it’s a “rule” that women, and now men, must pluck their eyebrows (and any other hair that doesn’t meet her concept of perfect grooming and appearance). She is surprised to learn she is pregnant after just a couple of months, calling herself “very fertile” (what does this make Brad?) and making one wonder if she never learned the reasons that contraception became such a hot topic for 19th century women. She abhors the idea of aging naturally and fantasizes about “slight tweaking” through plastic surgery until Brad says, “What will she [daughter] think if she sees her mother conforming to these bizarre societal standards?” — standards to which Charla would have us all make every effort to conform.
Charla presents herself as someone you should want to chat with over coffee about the vicissitudes of married suburban life; indeed, that’s how this book came about. I couldn’t. It’s more than her overuse of words like “nice,” “gal,” and “girls” (this from a “polite feminist”) or the wearisome banality of her endless reflections. She’s one of those people — we all know at least one — who prattle nonstop without saying anything, leaving one feeling tired and empty — or energized, if that is your sort of thing.
365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy could have been a compelling story, but it would take a more interesting and thoughtful person than Charla Muller to grasp the topic and its nuances and to do it the justice it deserves.
29 August 2008
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf