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October 19, 2005

Review: Until the Real Thing Comes Along

Bookish , Roommate stuff , What, me? Have an opinion?

Elizabeth Berg's Until the Real Thing Comes Along was a quick read, decently written, that dealt with interesting topics. I hated it. The problem? The main character. I couldn't stand her. Patty has two main aspects of her worldview: she wants a husband and children. And she is in love with her best friend Ethan, who is gay, and refuses to see this (her love, not his sexuality*) as anything she has any control over or could possibly change. And - here's the kicker - she refuses to acknowledge that these two basic tenets of her life do not exactly work together well. Therefore, her solution is to have a child with Ethan (who also does want a child, but not, obviously, a wife). She browbeats him into sleeping with her and gets pregnant on the first try (and, of course, is disappointed; she wanted an excuse to sleep with him regularly). Patty then is amazed that the rest of her domestic fantasies don't exactly spring into life. (I don't want to give too much of the story away, so I'll stop the plot summary there.)

Ethan's motivations are a bit suspect too, of course: he knows Patty is in love with him and yet agrees to a "partnership of convenience" anyway. I got over my annoyance with him, though, because he actually provides a decent explanation for his thoughts and actions. Patty, on the other hand, constantly explains everything, but just does not get it. She claims to be Ethan's closest friend, to know everything about him, and yet she remains basically in denial of his homosexuality. She seems to see it as basically random and totally unconnected to the rest of him (or, as she might think, the real him). She thinks there's a sexuality switch that could be toggled on or off without affecting the person as a whole at all.

This probably bugs me more than it might other readers because it's another example of an issue that has been bothering me anyway. Let's back up a bit. My roommate is also a coworker and good friend. We have a lot in common, are rather frighteningly similar in some ways, and get along very well. I mean, really: we live together and work together and therefore spend probably about 75% of our lives within twelve feet of each other, and haven't tried to kill each other yet. So it's pretty much accepted fact that we get along oddly well, and this periodically comes up in conversation with other friends or family. The great majority of the time, the seemingly automatic response is "Oh, too bad he's gay. You'd be perfect for each other."

Umm, no. There is something very flawed about that reasoning. Actually, I have several issues with it. For example, I don't think it's a given that we'd be perfect for each other in the first place - sexual orientation aside, what I'm looking for in a roommate or friend is not the same as what I'd be looking for in a boyfriend**, although there would certainly be some overlap in criteria. I also don't like the implication that romantic relationships are somehow intrinsically preferable to friendships, but that's another issue. Anyway. The issue I have with it in relation to the book is the idea that sexuality is totally distinct from basic identity. I have trouble with the premise that if my friend or Ethan in the book (see, I told you I'd get back to the book) had happened to have been born heterosexual, they would in all other aspects be the same person.

Actually, "I have trouble with it" is too mild; I think it's preposterous. It seems the difference in experience, if nothing else, would be far too great. For just one example, think of a long-running crush you had in middle or high school. Think of the ways that person affected your tastes, activities, etc. Think of how all those little decisions built up to make you into the person you are. Then extrapolate to all your other crushes, relationships, actors you found attractive, etc. I'm sure you can see where I'm going with this. But apparently Patty can't. And that's just talking about particular experiences, and not even really getting into the larger issue of identity, which is one I don't feel prepared to tackle.

So. What I am trying to say is that, while Patty claims to know Ethan completely, her belief that he would - could - be the exact same person she loves and be "not really gay" or suddenly magically become heterosexual shows that she doesn't really know him that well at all. Patty wants a fantasy, not "the real thing" after all.

* Perhaps this is actually a good summary of her problem. She believes that his sexuality is something she can change, while her feelings are not, instead of vice versa. (Not that I'm saying it's easy to change one's feelings or anything, of course. But anyone who has ever gone through a breakup and later fallen in love with someone else has done it. Or so I hear.)

**Not that I'm looking.

Posted by Kat at October 19, 2005 08:51 AM

I have to confess: I hate Elizabeth Berg's books.

Posted by: Erica at October 19, 2005 09:21 AM

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