With Memorial Day behind us, we usher in both summer and the high point of the seemingly endless wedding season. Jen Doll and J. Courtney Sullivan have tackled the wild world of love and marriage through their writing. Doll’s debut memoir Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest (Riverhead) chronicles the highs and lows of her experiences attending dozens of weddings. And Sullivan’s most recent novel The Engagements (Knopf), just released in paperback, explores the history of the diamond engagement ring industry via a cast of truly unforgettable characters.
In celebration of wedding season, these two experts in the field sat down to discuss writing, love, marriage, feminism, and the treacheries of the bouquet toss.
On the Enduring Power of Marriage:
J. Courtney Sullivan: Novelists tend to write about their obsessions. One of mine has always been the idea that the moment a person is born will determine so much about who he or she is allowed to become. A few years back, as same-sex marriage laws were rapidly changing around the United States, I kept thinking that it was only a little over 40 years ago that a black man and a white woman couldn’t marry in this country. That a woman needed her husband’s permission to get a credit card. The lives of the four couples in The Engagements span a century because I was eager to explore how legal and societal constraints have shaped marriages over time.
Marriage itself has changed a lot, yet — in America, at least — the institution remains incredibly popular. I’ve always been fond of that Fran Lebowitz quote, “Why do gay people want to get married and be in the military, which are the two worst things about being straight?” But the fact is that lots of people — gay and straight — still want to get married. Our culture values marriage as the ultimate commitment, despite all we know about its failings. As for weddings, I’ve had one of my own now and I still can’t figure out why they have so much power over us. I think it has a lot to do with avoiding regret. You hear about your grandchildren a lot when you’re planning a wedding — “Don’t scrimp on the photos, your grandchildren will cherish them one day.” Will they? Will they really?
Jen Doll: While we can only live in the moment in which we exist, that moment is made up of so many moments that came before, of history and legacy and tradition and rebellions against those things, large and small. It hasn’t been such a long time that divorce has been acceptable, or that women don’t necessarily get mocked as “old maids” if they don’t marry (at least not to their faces). When my mom moved into an apartment of her own, her mom made her put “M” (instead of Miss or Ms.) on the mailbox so she wouldn’t be obvious as a single woman living alone.
Of course marriage remains a major tradition because it IS a major moment, a big deal. For a long time, a commitment between partners has been represented with a wedding ceremony, and we don’t really have anything else yet that has quite the same clout in the minds of the majority of people. Plus, the tax benefits? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the desire to legally marry, I think it’s rather nice, if it’s being done for the right reasons and if adults, regardless of gender or race or sexual preference, are included and given the right to honor the relationships of their lives as they choose. I think in America most people feel the desire to legally marry (even as they do it at a later age, or in previously unheard of ways) because, as my dad told me of his peers back in the ’60s, it’s still pretty much what people do. Despite what we might think when we’re planning weddings, we’re not, in fact, all that different and unique from one another. We want love, we want to feel safe in our partnerships, and many of us want a way to, I suppose, shout from the rooftops that we are in love and also have a big party to celebrate forever-togetherness because our friends did too, and why wouldn’t we? On the other hand, there are those of us who don’t want that at all, and that’s totally OK, and, I hope, increasingly acceptable in society.
On Feminism and Marriage:
JCS: I don’t think there’s anything inherently anti-feminist about wanting to get married. The act of loving another person, being partnered with that person in whatever way you choose, has little to do with ideology. But there are smaller decisions related to marriage that certainly raise questions. I’m amazed by how many of my married female friends — the vast majority, in fact — have changed their names. That’s something that doesn’t square with what I consider my own feminist values. But then, I have friends who think it’s sexist and archaic for your father to walk you down the aisle at your wedding. Mine did. We all make certain choices and not others. Marriage raises all sorts of questions about gender equality. But a marriage can be whatever two people decide it is. There is so much variation within that framework, especially today. As a writer, I liked exploring the intricacies of marriage, which are somehow both universal and very particular.
JD: As a writer, I deal with the challenges I see and feel by writing about them. I write about them as a woman because that’s who I am and what I know. I do think there’s some pressure among modern women to not fall in head over heels love/bridezilla crazy with the idea of a wedding (and I think this might be a good pressure, honestly). Wedding obsession for women seems for one thing prescriptive, like this is what Hollywood or society or some old guard dowager type wants you to do, and why would you do what’s expected of you, just to fit into some old expectation? It’s belittling to ourselves, because it’s not the wedding you should obsess over, it’s your own life, your own happiness. At the same time, relationships are a part of that.
I also think that in the past I have felt weak or ashamed to be driven (admittedly so or not) by the desire to find another, or to confront the reality that I might want to be taken care of by someone, or to have an end goal of marriage. Sometimes marriage itself, to say nothing of certain dating norms, doesn’t always feel so progressive. I don’t think any of us should have an end goal of marriage. There should be much more to that. For me, the key has become having a sense of self-awareness and thoughtfulness about the things I do, and why I do them. Making sure I’m making choices that really jibe with who I am and want to be, because we can make the choices we want to, by and large, today.
On Their Evolving Views on Marriage
JCS: There’s a character in The Engagements named Kate who is in a long-term partnership with a man she loves. They have a young daughter. But they have no interest in marriage or a wedding. I myself was never anti-marriage, but I was working out a lot of my own frustrations about other people’s weddings through Kate, who watches her cousin Jeff turn into a totally wedding-obsessed groom. Then I got engaged. At first, my husband and I thought we’d go to City Hall and maybe have a small, civilized dinner party. But then my mother put a copy of The Knot magazine in my Christmas stocking and I drank the Kool Aid big time. Writing Kate and Jeff was therapeutic — I could spend hours looking at mason jars and bridesmaid dresses on Pinterest (strictly for research, of course) and get into Jeff’s head that way. Then I’d write Kate’s reaction to it, which was really my reaction to my own horrifying behavior.
JD: As a kid, I was less “anti-marriage” than I am now, by which I mean to say I was simply less aware of any of its contradictions or inherent complications. I thought it was simply part of being an adult, you’d grow up and get a job and get married and have your own kids. In writing my book I really looked at how my feelings about marriage have evolved with time, from it being a rote expectation to it being pure choice, and something everyone might not choose to do. I think by the end of the book the most surprising thing for me was that instead of deciding marriage was pointless or outmoded, I found I really still believed in it, if it is done in a self-aware, honest, open way, between the right people.
On Marriage and Friendship:
JD: Friendship is main thread in my book, through my relationship with a character named Ginny. I think it’s fairly common for women that in growing up our friends may choose partners whom we can’t find our way to understand or approve of. Romantic relationships do have a tendency to drive a wedge of some sort between friends. They change our closeness and our most intimate best-friendhood, and yet we are supposed to act like this is all fine and even good because romantic relationships are paramount in some societal view. I had a hard time coping with this — why should a boyfriend take precedence, necessarily, over an age-old friendship? — and figuring out how to deal with it, and I made some mistakes, which I write about in hopes that others will not feel so alone if the same thing happens to them.
On Marriage as a “Women’s Topic”:
JD: I’m a woman and I write about things I care about, weddings included, but certainly I don’t only write about weddings. (I recently wrote an article for Mental Floss about, for instance, fireflies. Unmarried ones.) I also think that men have plenty of their own legitimate, interesting feelings about weddings and marriage — take the chapter in which I interview my dad, who has plenty to say! — and, yet, we don’t talk about that all that much. Weddings are a human issue, not a gendered issue. If I can write about them in a way that resonates with not a particular gender but people in general, that would make me happy. Also, I think a person should never not write about something for fear it’s going to cast her in a particular “role.” Then the stigma has won. But we can and should write about things thoughtfully, and in a way that does not cleave to stereotypes.
On Wedding Traditions They Could Do Without:
JD: I hate the bouquet toss because it tacitly assumes we all want the same thing, and puts the bride in this power position, generously handing down her “best choice in life” to another. But c’mon. We can all make our own choices, and some of us don’t want to catch a bouquet! (And we don’t have to catch the bouquet, or to be paraded out in a single-woman line and viewed by the married folk in our mission to follow their lead, to get married.) I just think it’s belittling, unless, maybe, you’re throwing the bouquet to your little cousins who desperately want it. But even then, it tends to be a really gendered thing, and I’m not sure it’s so good for little girls to feel like marriage, or the catching of the bouquet, is a “win.” I also dislike parties for everything, like every single little aspect, of a wedding. Celebrate, yes, but I think there are only so many times you should get to say “bring me a present” because I have done this.
JCS: I’m so with Jen on catching the bouquet. Oh god, the horror. I also think the world might be a better and happier place if we did away with bridal showers.
On Memorable Wedding Stories:
JCS: I once went to a wedding at Tavern on the Green. There were four or five weddings happening at the same time. At a certain point I went to the bathroom, came back to the wedding, got a drink, made the rounds, chatted with some people. Then I realized: This is actually not my friend’s wedding. I’m in the wrong room.
JD: Though I’ve been to nearly 30 weddings (and counting!), I only cover 17 of them in my book. One that got cut involved the wedding of a high school friend in Boston. Another friend and I waited and waited for our scheduled bus on the Upper East Side but it never came; eventually we were informed it had been canceled. We rushed across town to Penn Station and jumped on the next train and arrived after the ceremony had ended but before the reception began in earnest. We stayed at a hotel that reeked of cigarettes and had a not-working air conditioner, and at the reception I was seated next to the mother of the girl who’d dated the best friend of my high school boyfriend. I just remember thinking, Wait, what the hell just happened here? It was a lovely wedding but I realized… you don’t have to go to every wedding, just because you’re invited. And maybe don’t take a bus to a wedding.
In other memorable wedding stories, I’m looking forward to my brother’s upcoming nuptials, which I’m officiating in the fall. I am going to do my best not to cry.