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book review

Robin Rinaldi says her year of open marriage was a mixed blessing.

Late in her 18-year-marriage, Robin Rinaldi told her husband she wanted to have kids. When he refused, Rinaldi decided that she had to operate from the premise that each person in the relationship was "in this for our own individual goals, not for anything larger." And so, with that, she rented a studio in downtown San Francisco, in a self-admitted act of rebellion, with the goal of turning it into a bumpin' sex lair – a place where she could bring whomever she wanted, to do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted. On the weekend, she would move back in with her husband and live a normal married life (which, under the strain of these conditions, must have been more "normal," in quotes).

The book, The Wild Oats Project, comes along in the middle of a cultural conversation on the viability of monogamy. Divorce is old hat; children of divorce are struggling with fidelity in their own way. On the surface, this book seems like it might be an interesting contribution to a necessary, ongoing discussion. Admittedly, I'm troubled by the degree to which it serves as a sick burn on a husband whom the writer can't bear to leave but also badly wants to hurt. Not only would she have a ton of wild extramarital sex, but she would go one better – she would write about it in detail in a book in whose pages she also details the emotional and physical shortcomings of her relationship with her husband. (I know: Cringe!)

Still, did I read the hell out of this book? You bet I did.

The Wild Oats Project manages to combine the two most exhibitionistic genres into one book: memoir and porn (or "erotica," if that is your preferred terminology). Within the first 20 pages, we are deep into … a description of the hot sex she is having during her first affair. Rinaldi is skilled at writing about sex – she is shameless and honest, and she avoids the pitfall of trying to be coy or adventurous with her language – just straight-up dirty talk is her thing. Good thing, too, because there is plenty of it throughout the book.

But there is also the pretense of spiritual edification, because as soon as Rinaldi sets herself free, she falls in with a group called OneTaste, an affiliation of middle-class, well-educated people who practise mindfulness through "Orgasmic Meditation," or OM. This is where the book really goes down a San Francisco rabbit hole – you know, where the white rabbit is packing ben-wa balls. (The sexually delicate may wish to stop reading now, because there's no reviewing this book without getting, uh, physical, as Olivia Newton-John once said.) OneTaste is female-centric, with an emphasis on getting women in touch with their sexuality through a series of workshops and practices that include highly regimented instructions, e.g., for no more than 15 minutes will a man stroke a woman's clitoris on its upper left quadrant, while the woman simply registers the sensations; orgasm is optional, not required. Enlightenment trappings aside, the whole community essentially functions as a dating pool for a certain sort of person, of which Rinaldi is one (mostly – she has her criticisms of it, too).

Rinaldi tries a bunch of other very West Coast-y things in pursuit of … I'm not exactly sure what. Happiness, fulfilment, a deeper life – the things that most of us want but settle for in smaller quantities than we'd wish for. Rinaldi does not settle. She sways and groans and rages and takes off her pants in various group settings, trying to get in touch with her body, because it is her body, she believes, that can lead the way to her happiness. Her decent but not-quite-pyrotechnic marriage falls by the wayside as she immerses herself in this quest. She is an operatic, reckless narrator, which makes, of course, for great reading. She's also, as is no doubt obvious by now, pretty exhibitionistic.

The book's back jacket promises a story in the vein of Eat, Pray, Love and Wild. I am always a sucker for these books – always. I'm captivated by stories of endurance. A woman is wrecked, a woman seeks deep within her soul, a woman knows herself better and rises to triumphant new heights from which she can now write the story of her suffering. It's an established storyline. We can relate to the pain and feel less alone (who among us has not hit rock bottom?), but we can also believe that, no matter how crazy or rotten things get, there's a reward on the other side. It's compelling and comforting storytelling that demands nothing of us.

That's okay! We can be lazy, voyeuristic readers from time to time. The problem isn't really the laziness – the problem is when we start to think these books offer a template for how to live (and, yes, love and laugh) bravely. The authors make us feel as if we are privy to their hellish depressions and failures, but we're not. We are reading a packaged, marketable version of hell that always comes with the promise of an exit.

We are lured into believing that what we are reading is the truth though, because of the surfeit of candid confession – the dirt. Surely that much disclosure equals the truth?

North Americans, but particularly Americans, seem to thrive on disclosure. Writer Jean-Benoît Nadeau once said that you can tell a French woman wants to be your friend if she talks to you at all: "The French have no compunction about not talking to you." Meanwhile, the stereotype of the Ugly American has them spilling out their divorce, their surgeries and their dietary restrictions before the in-flight peanuts even hit the tray table.

By normalizing the confessional mode, like these books do, like so much of American culture does (reality TV, talk shows etc.), something is gained (less stigma) but something is lost. And that something is the essence of intimacy, which is, by definition, something private. What we are getting between the covers is a performance of intimacy. You know where else we find a performance of intimacy? Pornography. What we have now, with this relentlessly explicit genre of memoir, is a pornography of feelings. (I like to imagine saying this in Werner Herzog's voice.)

Both genres adhere to certain conventions. There's the theme of a powerful yearning and then fulfilment, and though the types of happy endings vary greatly, the climaxes are always experienced self-consciously, transmuted into something consumable. Something deeply appealing that keeps us coming back for more. And in both cases, it's fine to enjoy it – as long as we recognize it's cleaned up, shaped, edited – mostly fantasy.

Rinaldi tries to keep it real. She is candid, self-critical, skeptical (although at certain points in the book I wished for more of this, specifically when she attends a workshop by self-proclaimed "spiritual teacher" David Deida, who tells her she is "the kind of woman who needs to be slapped" to get her energy moving. But Rinaldi is more a participant than an observer here). She knows she is flawed. Nonetheless, this book relies heavily on the idea of self-discovery, self-exposure and catharsis as a cleansing force. After all her thunderous emoting, she almost dodges a happy ending, but not quite.

As therapist Esther Perel writes in her exploration of monogamy, Mating in Captivity, at a certain point, Americans began to believe that intimacy could be equated with transparency. Couples, goes the untold rule, should conceal nothing from each other – that's what authenticity is. Perel's revolutionary book suggests that we need to reacquaint ourselves with a bit of autonomy and privacy – only through this sense of separateness can we find the electricity of attraction.

It's a directive that might have stood extremist Rinaldi in good stead – both as a lover and as a writer.

Lisan Jutras is the Globe and Mail's deputy books editor.

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