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Book Review

Have men and women come to an impasse? In a compelling, and sometimes irritating new book, Stephen Marche (with the help of his wife, Sarah Fulford) examines modern gender relations. Elizabeth Renzetti (with footnotes by her husband, Doug Saunders) reflects on the never-ending battle of the sexes

The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth About Men and Women in the 21st Century
By Stephen Marche
HarperCollins, 241 pages, $32.99

Every marriage has foundation stories, some of them formed in the blood and hardship that accompanies serious combat. You know it: the delivery room.

When our first child was born, in a gleaming mothership of health care near the beach in Los Angeles, my husband read me stories about shark attacks from Reader's Digest (the theory being that my pain would seem faint in comparison. It was a faulty theory). The nurses attending an actor in another room rushed into mine when they heard Neil Diamond on the TV, singing Cracklin' Rosie. We were one pineapple hedgehog away from a seventies dinner party.

I was only in Los Angeles because I'd left a good job in Toronto to accompany my husband, who was this newspaper's correspondent for the U.S. West Coast. For three years, I lived on a humiliating "spouse visa," which prevented me from working in the United States. It was a wonderful time in our lives, but also a feminist cautionary tale: This is where you end up if you let a man choose your destiny, with no job, a screaming baby and Neil Diamond on the TV. (1)

Stephen Marche made the opposite journey and, where I concluded I was living a feminist cautionary tale, he found himself at the centre of what he calls "the hollow patriarchy." In 2007, he was teaching Shakespeare in a tenure-track job at City College of New York and raising a young son with his wife, Sarah Fulford. When Fulford was offered a juicy peach of a job, the editorship of Toronto Life magazine, he gave up his position and they moved back to Toronto.

At a certain point, they found themselves in the delivery room of a Toronto hospital, as Marche writes in his new book, The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth About Men and Women in the 21st Century: "A woman with a big job delivering a baby while her husband watched would have been inconceivable 50 years ago." At one point, Fulford asked for an iPad to write a note to work, leaving her husband baffled as to what could be so important: "A cover negotiation? A better lead to the second paragraph of some story or other?"

In fact, Fulford responds, "I was telling the magazine's deputy editor that I might be offline for a while." (2) Throughout the book, Marche's wife (who was my colleague at that big job I abandoned) provides wry footnotes to his text, elaborating on, or sometimes contradicting, his conclusions. It's like having brunch with a couple who have been married a long time, except you don't have to line up or pay eight dollars for a juice.

Marche's central thesis, told through eight linked essays, is that men and women have come to an impasse of sorts, where women's power is increasing, but not quickly enough, and men's power is crumbling, and not in ways they fully understand or like. The project for men, as they suffer through crises of loneliness, undereducation and shifting power dynamics, is "how to be a proud man without being an asshole about it."

This is a charming, compelling and sometimes quite irritating book. As I read, I nodded in agreement as often as I made an exasperated note in the margin. This is meant to be a compliment. I don't know about you, but I am tired of reading essays that are solely meant either to enrage a particular reader or stroke her pleasure centres. Here, there is nuance and ambivalence. When the science is baffling or contradictory – around men and women's cognitive differences, for example – Marche says so, which is refreshing. Uncertainty may not be much in vogue, but it's a useful philosophical position.

"Patriarchy is damned expensive," Marche writes. "That's why it's doomed." And, later, "Men are obviously at the end of something." Boys are underperforming in schools; fathers are often absent; the role models of an earlier generation are tarnished or discarded. What's a guy to do? (3) Marche's game plan involves hanging out with the kids while juggling his career as a cultural critic and novelist. He tries to help with the housework. He gets his granddad's watch fixed, and keeps an eye on the past. But he is also a dude, so he wonders about the "moral panic" over pornography. He is suspicious of male feminists (largely because of Jian Ghomeshi, apparently). He tries to grapple with the complexity of the world in a way that would not shame his mom or his dad or annoy his wife.

There are beautiful aperçus here, often in the service of common sense. "Housework is the macho bullshit of women," Marche writes, and it is hard to disagree. Fulford's footnotes here back him up; she wishes she could let sleeping socks lie. An aside: The only piece of advice I would offer a young person is to find someone precisely as anal, or as slothful, as you are yourself. Any other way madness lies. (4)

Now for those black notes I scrawled in the margins. Marche's conciliatory tone is laudable; we all need to work together, with less hysteria, to solve intractable problems (I kept picturing Mick Jagger trying to soothe the roiling crowd at Altamont: "Brothers and sisters! Come on now! Just cool it out!"). But to do so at the expense of women's increasing political and cultural emancipation seems narrow-minded, to say the least. In a discussion of maternity leave, Marche writes, "We approach the limits of feminism as an ideology, because to concentrate on the needs of women is counterproductive."

Well, no, it's not. Not as long as women lack the political representation and financial power enjoyed by men. Later, Marche writes, "Violence against women is constantly declining," which fails to mention violence in general is declining across the Western world, and that vast realms of aggression against women – from sexual violence to intimate partner violence – are notoriously underreported and poorly resourced. Just look at Robyn Doolittle's series about unfounded sexual assaults in this paper.

But I would say that, wouldn't I? I'm a feminist, and I like to argue. (5) But I'm also a reader, and a person who lives in this crazy, overly shouty world. As such, I'll say there is much pleasure found between the covers of this particular messy bed.

Elizabeth Renzetti is a columnist and feature writer with The Globe and Mail. Her next book, a collection of essays on modern feminism, will be published in 2018.

Doug Saunders is The Globe and Mail's international affairs columnist. His next book, Maximum Canada: How a Big Country Became Too Small, and What We Can Do About It, will be released later this year.

Renzetti and Saunders are married.

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