What weddings need is more nihilism. That is the conclusion I’ve come to after reading Jen Doll’s droll, charming, but finally too-tender Save the Date, which chronicles the more than 20 marriage ceremonies she’s attended so far in her life.
The stakes at weddings, they are so high. The margin for error, it is so small. The moment, the solemnity, the dress, the kiss, the coming together of friends and family, the taking stock, the social comparisons, the regret, the tears, the joy. “Human nature is often bared to its core at a wedding,” Doll writes. Also: “Each wedding we attend, in whatever role we uphold, will highlight some aspect of our own lives, reflecting and reframing the way in which we look at ourselves.”
Weddings sure are interesting and important!
To be fair, Save the Date is the best possible version of a book that attempts to peer beneath the ruffles and tulle, plunder the buffet table not just for mini quiche but for insight into our lives, relationships, and society. It is chock-full of hilarious observations (“After you rage at a wedding, you want to know why”), lively anecdotes (that time one of the bridesmaids broke out in hives after a trip to David’s Bridal), and lovely description (“The wedding went by like all weddings do, the white satin swirls of a bridal gown circling on the polished dance floor”). Yet reading it can still feel like watching a hyper-talented and funny writer trying strenuously to wring meaning from a whole lot of silliness. “There’s a certain misty desire that filters through even the most perseverant of hearts at the sight of a marrying couple, neither of them any better than us individually but somehow greater as two, vowing to stay together forever,” Doll says, striking a note common to this book, somewhere between truth and stop it. At the same time, weddings “can be powder kegs. They are full of love, but they also can be tinged with anger, resentment, insecurity, doubt, and all the baggage we come with as adult humans.” Yes, but same goes for high school reunions and baby showers.
I would love to read the nihilist’s guide to weddings: “Your marriage putteth an end to many short follies, with one long stupidity.” Get married, or don’t! We’re all going to die. Failing that, I wish—in my bitter, wizened heart—Doll had managed to dredge up a bit more cynicism. As Rebecca Traister observes, “Weddings badly need someone to be mean about them.” But Doll is a narrator who devours Missed Connections in her spare time and made pre-graduation pacts with her college friends that they would all attend one another’s ceremonies. In sentence after reverent sentence, she reconstructs the gowns, the menus, the napkins, the lighting, the species of flower; she limns glowing tableau of the bride and groom kissing on the beach, exchanging private smiles on the dance floor, breathing their personalized vows. “Surrounded by Marjorie’s family and all of our friends,” she recounts, “I gave a speech about how much my longest-sustaining friend meant to me, and how happy I was to see her with someone who was such a great match for her, who loved her so much, who wanted the same things she did. Marjorie cried, and Violet and Kate and I cried, too, and then we hugged in a big, warm friend circle and toasted with Jack Daniel’s shots, which Marjorie’s dad and brother delivered to us from the bar.” Scenes like this don’t comment on wedding sentimentality, they wallow in it. But it’s hard to be sentimental about people you barely know.
Of course, the nuptial set pieces really exist to give shape to the heroine’s adventures, highlight her hopes and dreams, and raise the question of whether pie can ever be a reasonable substitute for cake. (Yes, but not if it contains peanuts and the bride has a deadly peanut allergy.) From a destination “love camp” in Jamaica to a chic Brooklyn production with “tattooed hottie waiters,” Doll provides the through-line. Great news, you’ll love her! She drinks too much, throws shoes and tantrums, overdoes PDA, and concocts wedding revenge plots against smug high school debating champions. She’s single, and conflicted about it. Her whirlwind opening chapter alone—“Congratulations! Or is it best wishes? Here is your KitchenAid”—is worth the price of admission. She knows, too, how to weave an appealing story, even when the themes seem potentially (inevitably?) mundane or trite. Here she reflects on a friend’s comment that she should just “give [another dateless guest] a chance”:
There were plenty of paired-up couples in my life who seemed to see me as a hard-hearted ballbuster who never opened up, who refused to even consider anyone less than some idealized form of man. In truth, I knew that my heart, though deeply crusted on the outside with a protective layer of sarcasm and revenge schemes, was as welcomingly pliable as any of the hearts of the married twosomes I’d seen into wedlock. I might present a tough barrier, but it was a thin one.
These particular lines touched me. Probably other ones will resonate for other readers, depending on their relationship histories and current romantic situations. It’s tricky because the book is full of wisdom wrapped in cliché, or cliché dressed up as wisdom. “Each of us can only know what we feel, and what we want to feel, and try to figure out if what we have and what we want can be compatible,” Doll says. When I read that line, it seemed insightful. As I type it, it does not. Yet even the glosses on love and friendship that faceplanted in my soul’s unforgiving snows have a hard-earned quality, as if in the context of more life experience they might take on the shimmering aspect of truth. Doll has been to more than 20 weddings. I’ve been to four. “One man’s music is another man’s Muzak,” and sometimes you don’t recognize the power of the nuptial song until the band’s packed up for the night.
If the big pronouncements don’t all work in Save the Date, look for intriguing tea-light glimmers around the edges. Doll hints at the rise of nontraditional families, offering a reporter’s-eye-view of a gay marriage and a guest’s-eye glance at divorced parents who meet one another’s significant others for the first time at their daughter’s wedding ceremony. She talks about kids. Kids! Do we want to open that discussion? (We do not.) And in a beautiful, late-night turning point, Doll finds everything she thinks has eluded her—a “glorious feeling of instant connection”—in another guest and rejects him. She does this because he has a wife. Because even if weddings suck, and marriage isn’t for everyone, she has decided the institution still means something.
Does it? I have no idea, and anyway that’s beyond the scope of this review. (Although maybe marriage needs more nihilism, too. Nothing matters! You are wormfood.) The point is that Doll thinks it does, and that this conviction can’t help but inflect her writing about weddings. They become elevated symbolic experiences, rather than just parties, or narrative devices on which to hang a skein of stories about her life and friends. Save the Date seems to want it both ways—to score sophistication points by puncturing little pieces of the marital daydream, but to keep the whole float bobbing along on a bed of nuptial mystique. A wedding may hold no more or less significance than any other happening on Earth, but the book demands we contemplate it with special care, as if love and commitment only release their true savor in the presence of chilled shrimp and flash photography.
Doll also knows, however, that the best thing about weddings happens to be the best thing about life in general: Stories are born. One time, for instance, en route to her friend’s ceremony, she was in a car with a strange man, and it broke down on the side of the road. One time she set a fire baking desserts for her boyfriend’s friend’s reception. One time, a waiter got arrested for hitting the wedding planner’s son in the face with a sheet pan, and someone stole all the gifts in the entrance hall, and the DJ refused to play anything besides salsa. One time she and her date shadow-danced behind a screen splashed with blue and green lights.
At best, Save the Date revels in what happens when people are crammed together in the midst of their own messy, irregular lives. These “real lives have been happening the whole time,” Doll writes, neither pausing for the bride nor waiting to begin until we’ve said our vows.