Read Jaclyn Geller's Here Comes the Bride in your shared queen bed, your husband (or wife) snoring nearby, your child tucked away elsewhere, and you can't help but cringe in self-recognition. Here Comes the Bride is no Bridget Jones's Diary, but here and there Geller's screed against marriage stings: the ubiquity of the petty royal "we," the "mundane intimidation" of a smug duo at a dinner party, holding hands while badgering the dateless girl, the cell phone chatter of husband and wife as autistic monologue. ("Honey, I'm at the dentist. Honey, I'm walking down the street.")
The book is a single girl's complaint against the lure of the marriage mystique and what it's done to her once intelligent girlfriends. The culture, she argues, bombards women with images of the Cinderella bride—Princess Di in a frothy white cloud, "dazzled and dazzling"; Nicole Kidman in Badgley Mischka; Jackie O., "a walking ad for graceless selfless matrimony." By the time they reach 30, her college girlfriends, who once passed the night reading Adrienne Rich to each other, "now pored over bridal magazines, selecting their wedding dresses, invitation formats and china patterns with great earnestness." Meanwhile, the single girl lives like a medical oddity, sitting patiently through another afternoon barbecue where her newly betrothed girlfriends fret about her condition—is her lover a rogue or just a commitment-phobe? Will he be the latest to abandon her to the plague of spinsterhood?
In this book, one happily hetero single girl gets her revenge. Geller's method is to cruelly dissect each chapter of the wedding fairy tale with grad student rage. The down-on-one-knee proposal is "man feigning power, bowing before his love object while simultaneously laying claim to her," the invitation "a last touch of aristocracy," the registry "capitalist decadence," down to the wedding, "a sentimentalized transfer of property."
But after a while, Geller's attention to detail grates. Like most grad students I know, Geller puts too much stock in symbols. A wedding is not a marriage. And by confusing the two, Geller misses what's going on. I don't know any woman who takes her wedding as seriously as Geller does. Or who reads in People magazine that Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise "will be on our honeymoon for the rest of our lives" and swallows it whole, sighing in dreamy innocence. Sure, we wear white dresses and order flowers and seven-tiered cakes, but the whole affair takes place in quotation marks. We know we can put on those gowns that "take us back to the nineteenth century" because we're not there anymore. The symbols by now are emptied of all their meaning, so we can embrace them; it's a fairy tale told out of real time.
Part of Geller's fault stems from her reporting method. At one point she ventures out of her grad school bubble, disguising herself as an actual bride-to-be. When she gets to the Bloomingdale's registry, she finds that (shock!) the salesladies dote on the brides! And wouldn't you know it, the same thing happens at Kleinfeld's, the wedding dress warehouse in Brooklyn.
Geller assumes a kind of innocence in the culture at large that's no longer there. We've all read Updike and Cheever, seen Kramer vs. Kramer, lived through the age of divorce. For every Cosby Show, there's a Sopranos. For every Moonstruck, there's The Graduate. For every Princess Di, there's a, well, Princess Di. Ditto for Jackie O. And Nicole Kidman.
One of the most interesting things about Geller the radical feminist is her disdain for moral relativism. She chides Gloria Steinem for explaining her decision to marry as a personal choice, valid for her if not for everyone, and generally makes fun of the New Age psychobabble permeating personal vows. Women who think they're marrying out of "spontaneous or romantic impulses" are just plain deluded, she argues. Marriage is "intolerably sexist," and for any woman who calls herself a feminist to participate in it is just wrong. In this way, Geller is a headstrong opponent for the latest crop of marriage evangelists, such as Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and Maggie Gallagher. But she recalls them in more ways than she'd like. Like them, she picks cartoonish examples. They have their rogues and Zsa Zsas who leave their spouses at the drop of a hat. Geller has her suburban dullards, the Scarsdale wives she knew from her youth whose lives were a string of tedious errands. In her book, married life is days on end of carpooling and picking up dry cleaning. The single life is a romp of the mind and body, days of dissecting Virginia Woolf and nights of sexual adventure, interspersed with bouts of thoughtful solitude and nary a lonely night.
The marriage canon would do well to make room for some ambivalence, especially among American women. In a country with no history of arranged marriages, we have been allowed to romanticize our unions. That's why they are constantly letting us down. We believe in the fairy-tale wedding. We also believe in divorce as an absolute right. We are optimists, until we are not.
Geller is ever vigilant about shades of doubt. She loved Sex and the City until she realized that Carrie Bradshaw was just like the rest of them, consumed with her "need for the one." But that's exactly why Bradshaw works as a character. Like Ally McBeal, or Mary Tyler Moore, or Murphy Brown, she is defined by her regret and ambivalence.
What Geller wants is a world full of women like Linda Fiorentino in Last Seduction, savage, bloodless, wholly devoid of an inner life. But women like that don't really exist, and if they did, they'd be interesting for only one episode.