The Best-Laid Plans–Sarah Dunn’s “The Arrangement”

The Scottish poet Robert Burns once famously said, “The best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley,” which is just to say that no matter how well we think we’ve planned, destinies have a way of coming along to f–k us up, the more as we’ve planned the harder.  In the upscale suburban community of Beekman in Sarah Dunn’s hilarious comic novel The Arrangement, the planning concerns marital conditions which range everywhere from ordered though mildly boring to outright acrimonious and divorce-prone.  Different couples in the community, though different in various ways, are mostly the same in the ways they’ve organized their lives around their children’s schools and future well-being, mostly college-bound young people as they are.  Trendy stores and shops are there too, but they are trendy in a very recycling-cum-farmer’s market-cum-craft shop-cum-socially conscious sort of way.

Enter Lucy and Owen, an apparently loving and overwrought young couple dealing with a child under ten, Wyatt, who shows characteristics both of autism and ADD, or even ADHD.  They have done all they conscientiously can to improve his life, but he is totally out-of-control a good part of the time.  This eats away at Lucy, whereas Owen deals with it by strategically (and usually successfully) coming up with redirects for Wyatt’s attention.  The couple also socializes with other couples in the community mostly just as they would were everything “okay,” which is an odd way of pretending that nothing is wrong when it clearly is.  Yet, no reader who has covered the first fifty pages or so would assume that there was anything wrong with the marriage itself, so the “remedy for no disease,” as it were, is odd.  What I mean to refer to is their assumption that they might benefit by adopting an “arrangement” which another couple tells them about at a private dinner they are sharing:  the open marriage.  The couple tells them that the arrangement is only for six months, and that there are ground rules.  They are intrigued, but at first don’t assume it’s an arrangement meant for them.

After a while, however, they finally decide to go ahead with it.  Their ground rules include things like “No texting (or sexting) to the other man/other woman inside the house,” “no falling in love,” “no more than a six month’s time span,” “no discussion of the situation in depth,” etc.  At first, Owen is all excited over the plans, and finds someone almost immediately, a craft store owner named Izzy.  Lucy takes a little longer, but finds someone, Ben, through a friend.  They’ve agreed that they don’t need to discuss things about their meetings, but the funny thing is that they end up lying to each other and being deceitful as if there were genuine, old-fashioned, unequal affairs going on.  And, Izzy ends up intruding into their marriage in a way that’s entirely inappropriate to the arrangement; Owen, over the course of time, realizes that she is sort of “crazy,” as her ex had conveyed to him when they spoke.

A lot of the humor of this book arises from the fulfilling of expectations which should have been perfectly normal with a regular old-fashioned affair, and the odd way both Lucy and Owen are startled when this happens.  There’s also a marvelously funny scene in which the whole community participates in a “blessing of the animals” at the local church, with mismatched and unlikely (and dangerous-to-mix) animals, who abruptly rebel from their owners and commit havoc on the surroundings and on each other:  this is the perfect symbolic scene for the themes of the book, or perhaps I should say the scene is the perfect objective correlative, for the people themselves and how they run their lives.

That the book ends more of less happily is due partly to the fact that Lucy and Owen, after spending time living apart while Lucy is falling out of love with her own friend, Ben, as Owen has done with his, Izzy, manage to get back together.  But for the satirical light of the book, this happens against a backdrop of other couples breaking up or making less happy arrangements for their lives.  To make Lucy’s and Owen’s way a little easier, Wyatt shows some signs of getting less erratic and concentrating more on what people say to him

Note that this book is in no way a heavy duty intellectual challenge.  It’s funny in a light way, well-written and free of most grammar and style errors, and a delight to read for its witty dealings with upper middle-class lives and mores.  It would be good to see other offerings from this author to see if there’re more scintillatingly satirical works in store.

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