Fic­tion

22 Min­utes of Uncon­di­tion­al Love

  • Review
By – December 22, 2020

In Daphne Merkin’s 22 Min­utes of Uncon­di­tion­al Love, book edi­tor Judith Stone meets crim­i­nal defense attor­ney Howard Rose at the par­ty of mutu­al friends in New York City. A rela­tion­ship ensues that Stone describe as twist­ed love — love indis­tinct from mad­ness” and lat­er as an obses­sion.” Stone recalls the rela­tion­ship as a much younger woman as coun­ter­point to her mar­ried, respectable and preg­nant-with-her-sec­ond-child present. Dur­ing her youth­ful fling with Rose (res­o­nances with Howard Roark of Ayn Rand’s The Foun­tain­head extend beyond the name), Stone dis­cov­ers the glo­ries of orgasms and the plea­sures of erot­ic fin­ger­ing at movie the­atres among oth­er racy pas­sions punc­tu­at­ed by acts of humil­i­a­tion. 22 Min­utes of Uncon­di­tion­al Love is Merkin’s sec­ond nov­el; she won the Edward Lewis Wal­lant Award for best nov­el on a Jew­ish theme for her debut nov­el Enchant­ment (1984). Two col­lec­tions of essays fol­lowed in the 1990s and then her mem­oir This Close to Hap­py (2017).

22 Min­utes of Uncon­di­tion­al Love plumbs the het­ero­sex­u­al dynam­ics between an old­er man, Rose is in his 40s, and a younger woman. Merkin’s frank por­tray­als of sex recall icon­ic fem­i­nist books about women’s sex­u­al­i­ty includ­ing Nan­cy Friday’s My Secret Gar­den (1973), Eri­ca Jong’s Fear of Fly­ing (1973), Bet­ty Dodson’s Lib­er­at­ing Mas­tur­ba­tion (1974) or her Sex for One (1987), and Judy Blume’s For­ev­er (1975); fans of those books are like­ly to delight in 22 Min­utes even though read­ers encounter the rela­tion­ship between Rose and Stone in a very dif­fer­ent moment than these ear­li­er exu­ber­ant explo­rations of women’s sex­u­al­i­ty. While con­tem­po­rary women’s mag­a­zines reg­u­lar­ly pro­vide advice on orgasms, inti­ma­cy, and pow­er in sex­u­al rela­tions, the #MeToo move­ment brought into pub­lic view rich­ly nuanced con­ver­sa­tions about com­plex­i­ties and pow­er dynam­ics with­in sex­u­al rela­tions. The joy of a plea­sur­able orgasm now tem­pered by mate­r­i­al real­i­ties. In this space, Merkin shines, evok­ing the inse­cu­ri­ties, vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, and inte­ri­or doubts of Stone with­out over­ly demo­niz­ing Rose. His emo­tion­al and men­tal manip­u­la­tions might cause read­ers pause, but more often than not he appears tru­cu­lent cad more than bar­bar­ic sadist.

A rec­ol­lect­ed affair, with Stone’s reflec­tions pro­vok­ing rev­e­la­tions about sex­u­al­i­ty, pro­vides the ful­crum for the nov­el. Nov­el­ist Nicole Krauss’s recent short sto­ry Switzer­land” in The New York­er uses a sim­i­lar frame­work. Krauss tells a riv­et­ing sto­ry of a mid­dle-age woman recall­ing a teenage friend’s affair with an old­er man when they were on the edge of adult­hood; Krauss’s nar­ra­tor sees plea­sures and dan­gers through new eyes as her own daugh­ter approach­es the age of major­i­ty. These two texts are in a vibrant con­ver­sa­tion. Krauss’s short sto­ry is arrest­ing, nuanced, and chal­leng­ing; Merkin’s nov­el explor­ing a steamy affair is anoth­er take on this provoca­tive dynamic.

Is 22 Min­utes of Uncon­di­tion­al Love a nov­el of women’s sex­u­al desires unleashed, or is it the sto­ry of a man’s manip­u­la­tion of a woman more than a dozen year’s his junior? That ques­tion is open for debate — and 22 Min­utes of Uncon­di­tion­al Love will enliv­en book groups. Five digres­sions” in the text allow Merkin as nar­ra­tor to engage with read­ers, invit­ing meta-nar­ra­tives on which book clubs thrive. In the final digres­sion, Merkin writes, What’s your sex life like?” Reflec­tions on this ques­tion — and one’s own youth­ful, erot­ic entan­gle­ments — in con­junc­tion with Stone’s sto­ry in 22 Min­utes will prompt provoca­tive and mean­ing­ful dis­cus­sions among readers.

Julie R. Ensz­er is a schol­ar and poet. She is the author of four col­lec­tions of poet­ry: Avowed, Lilith’s Demons, Sis­ter­hood, and Hand­made Love, and is the edi­tor of The Com­plete Works of Pat Park­er and Milk & Hon­ey: A Cel­e­bra­tion of Jew­ish Les­bian Poet­ry

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