The Book of Trouble: A Romance
By Ann Marlowe
Harcourt, 288 pages, $23.
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As Ann Marlowe painfully illustrates in “The Book of Trouble: A Romance,” finding intimacy is not as easy as finding one’s way into someone’s pants. Just as intellectual repartee does not necessarily make for an exciting sex life, a physical rapport can exist without an emotional bond. In this self-contained postscript to her memoir, Marlowe shares with us various intimacies of her life: cultural intimacy with the Third World countries she visits; filial intimacy with an Afghani family, with whom she lives for a month, and a deep physical intimacy with her lover, Amir, a wealthy Afghan expatriate 10 years her junior.
Always informative and occasionally interesting, Marlowe spends considerable time discussing the customs and relationships that exist in the many Middle Eastern countries she visits. She focuses especially on the nature of marriage between cousins and on the close ties within families — and corresponding coldness without — that exists in a society that adheres to custom instead of to law. While the book is subtitled “A Romance,” less than half of it involves the affair itself; Marlowe finds it necessary to relay her travels and analysis of cultures in order to explain how she feels about Amir, and how her experiences in his homeland inform her understanding of him. Marlowe comes to see Amir as the necessary product of his society: rough and sometimes even cruel on the outside, to protect a vulnerable interior. When she reduces his behavior to cultural factors, however, she inadvertently discredits the society she spends so much time defending.
Marlowe also turns her cultural critic’s eye in on herself. She fixates on the idea that she “wanted a man who looked Jewish but wasn’t; one who looked like family but couldn’t be.” Correspondingly, she finds that her “obsession with the Islamic world is a back door approach to [her] Jewish background.” Marlowe is not close with her family or its troubled history, and her connection with Judaism is — to say the least — tenuous. It seems that her obsession with Islam is indeed a back door to her Judaism — not as an approach, but an escape. She claims that “[s]lurs against Arabs are, literally, anti-Semitism,” but this overly historicized view rings of ad hoc justification. Such alignment of herself with Islam is typical of Marlowe, who conceives of herself as a dark-skinned desert-dweller rather than as the typical fair-skinned Jew of America, descended from Eastern European stock.
Overflowing with rhetorical questions and descriptions of intense lovemaking, the book reads more like a self-indulgent diary than like a memoir. Many of Marlowe’s travels and cultural observations are interesting, and she is impressively well informed about Middle Eastern culture, but for a book that professes itself to be a romance, she spends disappointingly little time on the affair itself. Furthermore, her attempt at flashbacks leaves the narrative jumpy and confusing, the chronology of events never quite clear. Though Marlowe and Amir were only together for six weeks, a year later she sits down to write him a love letter. I do not condemn Marlowe’s strong affections; what is cathartic to write, however, may not be enjoyable to read, and Marlowe fails to bring us along on her emotional journey as she engages in a torrid six-week affair and then wallows in her misery for a full year after its end. Marlowe’s over-personalized prose evokes sympathy at times, but never empathy — and I found myself constantly repeating the mantra of every introductory creative writing teacher: “Show, don’t tell.” Perhaps if Marlowe had shared the events of her life without her own self-justifying, love-struck analysis, we, too, could have loved and grieved.
Tessa Brown is a sophomore at Princeton University. Her fiction has appeared in Harper’s Magazine.