Monday, January 9, 2017

Review: I'm Coming by Selma Lonning Aaro

I was browsing the shelves at my local independent bookstore when I came across this novel. As a mom, I hear the phrase "I'm coming" all the time. At a guess, that's why I pulled it off the shelf (well, that and the deep pink color of the words). The cover of the book made me giggle almost immediately; from the pink rabbit ears to the rumpled sheet background and the short blurb "a hilarious novel about why women fake it," this was clearly a novel of a different sort. After all, there aren't too many mainstream novels about a woman trying and failing to have an orgasm. As risque as that might sound, this is not a risque novel. In fact, it is far more an examination of the ways that women are held to an unrealistic ideal by society, by men, by other women, and even by themselves and how that might manifest itself in their sexual lives.

Julie is a married mother of three. She's a writer who is at a loss over her next project. Her husband, A, is no more or less attentive than most husbands and she's free from some of the demands of motherhood by the presence of her au pair. But Julie has never had an orgasm, a fact that distresses her a lot and a situation she intends to rectify. She buys herself a vibrator that comes with a 30 day money back guarantee. Life is busy and so it isn't until she is seven days away from the end of the warranty that she gets serious about learning to pleasure herself. Deciding to lock herself away for those seven days, Julie is alone with herself, her vibrator, and whatever spools through her head during the time she is trying to reach orgasm.  And a lot spools through her head indeed.

The narration is first person although it ranges far and wide from the room Julie is in. She revisits her childhood, her sexual awakening, and much of her sexual history with various partners. In between her reminiscences, she is distracted by every day occurrences and consumed with feelings of failure, inadequacy, and of missing out. She fantasizes about men she's met recently, imagines her au pair's very probably healthy and fulfilling sex life, and ponders what about her life might be keeping her from fulfillment.

In the beginning, there are bits and pieces of Julie's thoughts that are very relatable to many women. The way her mind wanders from topic to topic feels very familiar and so the reader feels sympathy that she seems unable to turn this constant train of thought off, live in the moment, and just let go. But as she starts to examine her past, Julie becomes much less likable, recounting things that cause the reader to wonder if she's perhaps not as normal as expected, and in fact a bit unhinged or psychotic. These things make her an unlikable character, one that the reader doesn't want to spend time with, instead of someone the reader can relate to or respect. Her interactions with a construction worker are disturbing and her behavior with the dog she so desperately wanted but eventually tires of is unforgivable.  It is hard to get past these and other incidents to stay with the main story.

The novel's social commentary is astute and interesting and the way that sexuality and all that surrounds it is very often secret and shameful or at the very least undiscussable is handled very sensitively. The ending of the novel is unsatisfying (ha!) although it is very likely the only suitable ending given what came before it. The novel is not hilarious as the cover suggests although there is definitely some humor in it. Perhaps being a Norwegian translation makes its humor less accessible to an American audience. Also, it is surprisingly not sexy so those picking this up looking for titillation will not find it. Although Julie spends much of the book in bed, the masturbation scenes are not graphic or frequent at all, making this more of a feminist look at sexuality and the expectations and ideals we hold women to in all parts of their lives, including that most personal realm, the bedroom. Ultimately I was so turned off by Julie as a character that the novel didn't fully succeed for me but I did appreciate the nuggets of truth I uncovered.

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