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Book of the week: I Don’t: A Contrarian History of Marriage by Susan Squire
Susan Squire traces the history of marriage and the forces that have shaped it. The result is a "potent, hugely entertaining" book, where readers will discover, among other things, that the "person in a marriage who holds authority
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Don’t: A Contrarian History of Marriage
by Susan Squire
(Bloomsbury, $25.95)

Men and women didn’t always marry, says author Susan Squire. Eons ago, sex was a “mindless” pleasure-giving pastime that humans probably practiced indiscriminately within their tribes and surely didn’t understand as being a prelude to childbirth. Then one day “the light bulb goes on” in man’s head. Baby-making isn’t simply a thing that women do, he realizes; his fifth appendage is the source of human life. The resulting presumption of superiority generates a new dilemma for men, though. To create life and maintain mastery over his offspring, a man must surrender power to a woman by exposing himself emotionally as well as physically. Marriage, which arose to neutralize this insecurity by institutionalizing men’s dominance, says Squire, also wound up institutionalizing men’s essential conundrum: “Women must be controlled,” she writes, “but women can’t be controlled.”

In Squire’s “potent, hugely entertaining” book, the person in a marriage who holds authority isn’t necessarily the one who wields power, said O magazine. Squire’s very first chapter “archly reconsiders the disobedient biblical helpmeet Eve.” The whirlwind tour that follows showcases all the “witches, b-----s,” and “nymphomaniacs” who pop up in history and literature as reminders of how anxiously men wear their familial crowns. But Squire is less a “militant feminist” than a consistently “shrewd observer,” said Meredith Bryan in The New York Observer. She “maintains a sense of humor” whether she’s describing the Old Testament’s obsession with reproduction or how medieval authorities fretted over lust, and she finds an unlikely hero to her story in “none other than Martin Luther.” The father of the Protestant Revolution argued passionately against Rome’s idea of marriage as a necessary but evil “dumping ground” for sex, thus apparently laying “the theoretical groundwork” for gender equality.

Not that Squire is an unabashed fan of the contemporary expectation that marriage should be a 60-year honeymoon, said Publishers Weekly. Once she’s done highlighting how many burdens we place on matrimonial unions, readers will be “left questioning whether our modern idea of love matches” is destined to end up merely as another “chapter in a future book about the incarnations of marriage.” As Squire puts it, “Love may not be the answer, but for now, it is the story.”

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