When I was in college, one of my mentors was a lovely woman named Marita Woodruff. Marita wasn’t shy about sharing her life with her students when appropriate. One of her more famous moments was when she was talking about sex. She said, “sex is awkward and messy!” And then she would tell the story of when she and her late husband fell off the bed when making love. At the time that sounded more uncomfortable than romantic. A couple of decades and more experience later, I get it. Sex is awkward and messy and fun and intimate and imperfect.
I read Sweet Disorder a couple of years ago, but it didn’t connect with me. I liked it fine, but had nothing to say. After rereading it, I don’t know what I was thinking. There is a lot to unpack here.
Phoebe Sparks is a widow. Her marriage had been a love match that turned unhappy. Her late husband was of the voting class, and somehow marriage to Phoebe will confer upon her new husband the right to vote. Men’s ideas about what happens in a woman’s vagina are really weird. Some men still don’t seem to be able to shake the idea that a vagina is some sort of purse that carries a man’s rights and honor.
Nick Dymond is the son of a politically active upper class family. He has just returned from the Napoleonic Wars after suffering a leg wound. He hates the political life, but his mother bullies him into agreeing to arrange a marriage between Phoebe and a man who does not have the right to vote, but supports the Whigs. The Tories are also trying to set Phoebe up with a Tory supporting non voter. Again, Phoebe cannot vote because she’s a woman, but her vagina confers upon her husband the vote. Vaginas are magic!
Initially, Phoebe has no interest in marriage, but circumstances force her to consider her options. In the process of trying to talk her into marrying, Nick and Phoebe get to know each other and begin an affair. Here we get the aforementioned awkward sex. Lerner is most definitely on the feminist end of the romance spectrum. Mind blowing orgasm come after conversation, consent, and emotional vulnerability. The lovers’ bodies are real with flaws, textures and smells. After reading a few romances with flawless bodies and mutual orgasms on the first try, it was a palate cleanser to read something more real.
I enjoy a lot of different kinds of romances, but it is nice to read romances about people who could be real, with adult concerns and flaws. The book is written with a quiet sort of grace. I loved this quote from Nick,
“Love isn’t selfless,” Nick said. “It’s not selfish either. It’s two people each being just as important as the other.”