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The Boston Phoenix Wedding Blows

A hilarious novel documents a year of being engaged

By Megan Harlan

MAY 10, 1999: 

OTHERWISE ENGAGED, by Suzanne Finnamore. Knopf, 224 pages, $22.

Eve has proven those infamous professors wrong -- the ones who spooked professional women everywhere by claiming that, statistically, a single female over 35 would more likely be kidnapped by terrorists than find a husband. Of the professors, she hopes: "May they fall into open manholes, where hard-body lesbians with blow-torches await them." Because, at age 36, the quick-quipping narrator of Finnamore's breezy, funny debut is getting married for the first time.

As Eve tells it, none of her successes -- such as her six-figure income as a creative director responsible for an award-winning sneaker campaign at a top San Francisco ad agency -- compare with getting her boyfriend, Michael, a funny, black-clad 46-year-old marketing director who does a killer Deepak Chopra impression, to pop the question. That's because Eve has always yearned to be a Princess Bride. Her friends, her wedding consultants, and her mom all suggest that Eve deserves to indulge her fantasy: after all, she's worked hard to get her man! The novel opens with Eve cataloguing the many hurdles she faced: giving Michael a marriage-or-move-out ultimatum over Sunday brunch, cajoling him into buying her a $7000 engagement ring ("The ring is a lump-sum payment for everything bad that has ever happened to me," she crows). Now she can gloat over the "lifetime benefits to being Michael's wife" -- his French onion soup, his nice-smelling skin, the safety she thinks he'll provide.

By tracing the year leading up to Eve's wedding in an intimate month-by-month chronicle, Suzanne Finnamore -- herself a former San Francisco advertising worker responsible for award-winning sneaker campaigns -- offers an amusing overview of modern marriage from the peculiarly disengaged, limbo-like perspective of engagement. On a more pop-culturally attuned level, Finnamore has also taken the attractive, well-employed, flashily neurotic single woman about whom we've heard so much lately -- whether it's Ally McBeal or Bridget Jones or any number of postfeminist Time magazine cover girls -- and granted the poor woman her overriding wish: to get hitched. But does a diamond solitaire a contented woman make? Let's just say that Valium soon becomes the betrothed Eve's best friend.

No more than two months after their engagement, Eve descends into a claustrophobic panic. While watching Michael do something that annoys her, she is horrified to "hear the striking of a Chinese gong and the words FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE echo through my head." Everything about Michael -- the socks on the floor, the odd food-chewing habits, the shortness -- is all hers, from now until forever. This, apparently, she's just realized.

Finnamore's plot is as straightforward as a wedding march: Eve must learn to navigate -- physically and psychologically -- her newfound status as a Smug Almost-Married. She must gracefully fend off the passive-aggressive meddling of Michael's rather stereotypically Jewish Brooklynite mother. She must accept her imminent stepmotherhood to Michael's churlish teenage daughter; that not only is she the second wife ("It's so Nancy Kerrigan," she says of being "second"), but that Michael's sophisticated, arty ex seems so superior to her; that her married best friend matter-of-factly confesses that she no longer has sex -- not since the baby, anyway. Eve marvels that her mother's second marriage has lasted so long; she mourns again her alcoholic father's death years earlier, the reality that he won't give her away at her wedding. All of this, and she has the big day to plan.

Most worrisome, though, is that she and Michael live in a constant state of battle -- they have screaming matches over such issues as chicken broth. Eve sees a goofy Jungian therapist, to whom she confesses "how terribly sad I feel that Michael and I are not paralleling the engaged couple in the print ad for Tiffany's, all dressed up and twenty and hugging so tight you couldn't slide a pencil in between. These days we're more like two morbid grouchy orangutans in a small cage at a testing facility."

It's no surprise that Eve seems particularly susceptible to those images dealt out by advertising, since, after all, such fare is her lifeblood. But this is also the weakest aspect of the novel, that the standard Eve holds herself to is advertising's glossy fantasia ("Husbands should be at least six feet two inches tall," she muses), especially when there are deeper issues afoot, such as the one touched on humorously here:

"For eighteen months I made him soup and rubbed his neck and performed really sincere fellatio and now I'm tired. There's this backlash of confusion, now that it's finalized. Like, why did I have to do all this? And, given our respective ages, what took him so long? And even, sometimes, why did I want this? I've won, but what have I won?"

This last question -- so poignant, vital, complex -- is not one that Finnamore attempts to answer. Her quick-cut prose style -- sharp, snappy blurbs surrounded by lots of white space -- boasts flawless comic timing, but of the kind that tends to steamroll nuance. Eve is constantly tossing out insightful, all-too-swift self-disclosures as though they were punch lines, and then dashing off to obsess over her dress, the invitations, the endless wedding minutiae.

Similarly, there is no doubt about whether Eve and Michael will actually marry. Otherwise Engaged takes for granted that engagement is a particular circle of hell in which men and women will find each other at their most irritating, cloying, and expensive. In short, this novel can be given to a bride-to-be without the worry that she might as a result ditch her beloved at the altar. As for the heavy, unnerving questions, she's got the gong accompaniment and the "FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE" to grapple with them.


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