This review was originally written for Alt.com
Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships
by Tristan Taormino
Cleis Press. ISBN 978-1-57344-295-4. $16.95.
I've been waiting a long time for this book.
For many years, the bible of open relationships, the comprehensive "non- monogamy 101" text that got recommended to everyone, was "The Ethical Slut." But I had real problems with "Ethical Slut." I thought it was more or less fine, but I definitely found it too focused on taking care of yourself, and not focused enough on caring for your partners. (Especially for a book with "Ethical" in the title.) And while I did recommend it to people, I always hedged my bets when I did.
So I was very excited indeed when I saw Tristan Taormino's new book, "Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships." And even before I cracked it open, I was ready, perfumed pen in hand, to praise it to the skies.
Now that I've actually read it, here's what I have to say:
If that sounds like damning with faint praise -- you're right. It is. And I'll explain that in a moment.
But I do have genuine praise for this book, and I want to make that clear up front. "Opening Up" is a solid, insanely thorough guide to non- monogamous and polyamorous relationships. It covers a wide variety of different kinds of open relationships, with extensive discussions of the possible options and arrangements, pitfalls and solutions, that come with each. It provides a solid foundation for newcomers to these kinds of relationships, and offers interesting new options to folks who are already doing it. And it doesn't have the big failing I found in "The Ethical Slut." The need to be considerate of other people while still taking care of yourself permeates this book. And I greatly appreciated that.
I have a few quibbles with a few of the author's ideas and choices. (I was, for instance, annoyed that she illustrated the "changing from being primary to non-primary partner" situation with such a utopian example.) But none were deal- breakers, and I don't feel a compelling need to detail them here. If you want to find out how open relationships work, get some guidance on figuring out whether they might be for you, and learn some road-tested ways to manage them, then this is a fine book. The information is good, it's solid, it's useful, and it's thorough.
I know, I know. Damning with faint praise. So I'll just get to it: my big critique of the book, the thing that's keeping me from lavishing it with unqualified praise.
It's not very well written.
And I found that to be a serious problem -- not just for readability, but for actual content.
The main problem with "Opening Up" is that it's way, way too abstract. There are pages and pages of unbroken therapy- speak about communication and boundaries and owning your own feelings. After a while, it got to be like a not- very- funny satire of a very bad therapist. And there's far too little in the way of specific examples, details of particular arrangements and options and possible solutions to problems.
Example. On the problem of envy:
"When you are content with who you are and feel secure and satisfied in your relationship, it greatly lessens your envy of others. Work on yourself and your relationships rather than being preoccupied by others around you. Value yourself and be grateful for what you have. If you see something in someone else or in their relationship that you really want, take steps to get it by changing something about yourself or your relationship. Otherwise, it's best to work on your own self-worth and insecurities to lessen or eliminate the envy." (p. 157)
This isn't enormously useful. It makes it hard to get a handle on how -- exactly, specifically -- you might make an arrangement that deals with your envy and makes your open relationship work for you. Plus it makes for a rather tedious read. Especially when it goes on for pages.
And it can feel rather dismissive. When a relationship guide advises people to deal with painful, difficult feelings by basically saying "try to stop feeling that way"... it's not the most helpful advice on Loki's green earth. If we could just change how we felt about things, we wouldn't need guidebooks on relationships.
This isn't universally true everywhere in the book. There are practical pointers and concrete ideas sprinkled throughout, and they're solid and helpful. But there aren't nearly enough.
I was stewing about this to my wife, and she kept asking, "Aren't there any interviews or quotes from real non-monogamous people, to bring it back down to earth?" Yes, there are. Taormino talked to over 100 people for this book, and interviews and quotes abound. But more often than not, they don't bring it back down to earth. The interviews and quotes are all too often in the same vague, abstract, therapy-speak vein as the rest of the book. Again, this isn't universally true -- there are some good stories with entertaining and informative details. But again, there aren't nearly enough.
I don't know how to say this in a way that isn't catty. So I'm just going to say it: The writing is flat. It doesn't have elegant, formal grace; or fervent, fiery passion; or a friendly, chatty, invitingly casual tone. And it has almost no humor at all. The style is -- well, style-less. The book talks at length about the joy and liberation and abundant love available in open relationships... but it doesn't convey it. The enthusiasm is something less than infectious.
All of which adds up to a bad equation: a book that somehow manages to be both idealistic and uninspiring. It's kind of a neat trick, actually. "Opening Up" makes open relationships seem like a theory, an unattainably utopian castle in the air... AND like a tedious, drudge-like chore, a life of endless, mind-numbing processing punctuated with occasional sex. Both at the same time.
And that ain't right.
Let me put it this way. When I was in the middle of reading "Opening Up," I picked up a copy of "The Canon," Natalie Angier's book explaining the most important basic principles of the scientific canon to the non-scientist layperson. And once I picked it up, I never wanted to put it down. I wanted to be reading it every waking moment. And I found myself getting increasingly resentful of the fact that I had to set it aside and get back to "Opening Up" because I was on deadline for this review.
Now. Admittedly, "The Canon" is an exceptional book, highly acclaimed far and wide. And admittedly, I am a giant nerd. But still. I should not be more excited to read about covalent bonds and plate tectonics than about the ins and outs of multiple relationships. I should not be putting down the science book with dreamy, poignant longing... and picking up the book on boinking lots of different people with a sigh of dutiful obligation. That is just wrong.
Do get the book. Really. It's fine. It has good, solid, useful, thorough information, and if you want some guidance about navigating open relationships, I'm sure it will be quite helpful. I just wish I could be more excited about it.
(Conflict of interest alert: I work for a company, Last Gasp, that sells this book.)