Is True Love Possible? Readers Are Turning to This 1990s Novel for Answers.
“It was me and a group of true strangers talking about books we liked,” said Ms. Champagne, 35, who lives in Queens and works at a start-up. A woman recommended the novel without giving anyone in the chat room much to go on. “She was just straight up like, ‘This is the best book I’ve ever read,’” Ms. Champagne recalled.
Mr. Acevedo, 33, doesn’t know or follow Mr. Phipps but decided to trust the recommendation. “By Page 30 I was already texting other friends about it,” Mr. Acevedo said. “It’d been a while since I’d read a book that had me doing this.”
“Mating,” published in 1991, usually finds its evangelists by word of mouth. For some, its plot points can be a tough sell: An unnamed graduate student in Botswana pursues an American anthropologist, Nelson Denoon, who is trying to form a matriarchal society in a desert village. Punctuating the book are extended dialogues on socialism and a laundry list of obscure words and Latin phrases most readers confess to having to look up. The story is told in the voice of the unnamed student, a 32-year-old woman.
“Mating” was acclaimed in its time — it won the National Book Award — and is now in its 41st printing, having never gone out of print. And yet it has the air of a cult favorite.
The writer Lauren Oyler said she read it on the recommendation of the critic Christian Lorentzen, who gave her a beat-up copy a few years ago. Other recent converts include Blair Beusman, a social media editor at The New Yorker, and Sophie Haigney, the web editor at The Paris Review and a freelance writer, who said she counted the book among those like Shirley Hazzard’s “Transit of Venus” or Nancy Lemann’s “Lives of the Saints,” which are part of a “network of recommendations and rediscovery” online and in group texts.
“Mating” is a novel for people who particularly love novels. It is also a calling card exchanged between romantic partners aspiring to the kind of courtship that occurs between Mr. Rush’s two main characters. In an early chapter, the narrator announces that she will not settle for the “usual form that mating takes,” in which women make themselves subservient to men and men try to get away with giving women as little attention as possible.
In a video interview from his home in Rockland County, N.Y., Mr. Rush, 89, said he thought deeply about how societal norms figured into romantic love when he was dating the woman who would become his wife. The dedication of “Mating” makes clear that she was an inspiration for not only the narrator but the novel as a whole: “Everything I write is for Elsa,” it reads, “but especially this book, since in it her heart, sensibility and intellect are so signally — if perforce esoterically — celebrated and exploited.”
In the interview, Mr. Rush again credited the influence of his wife, who sat just out of frame. “Realizing at least some of the imperatives toward equality and fairness in a relationship was something that was imposed itself on me as someone living with a really unusually strong and gifted woman,” he said.
He met Elsa Scheidt when they were students at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. They were married in 1955, and Mr. Rush worked as a book dealer and teacher. From 1978 to 1983, he and his wife served as co-directors in the Peace Corps in Botswana. He did not publish his first book, the short story collection “Whites,” until 1986, when he was 53. When he started “Mating,” he found himself in new territory while writing about the love that develops between the book’s main characters.
Their bond is an “intellectual love” forged through scholarly debates, jokes and an endless stream of conversation. “Causing active ongoing pleasure in your mate is something people tend to restrict to the sexual realm or getting attractive food on the table on time,” the narrator observes, “but keeping permanent intimate comedy going is more important than any other one thing.” The two come to acknowledge their devotion to each other “without anyone having to go through the horrible bourgeois ritual of declaring love.”
With the usual rituals of courtship out the window, Mr. Rush faced the challenge of writing a new kind of love story. “What would the game be?” he said in the interview. “How would one set out to arrange things to a greater moral satisfaction?”
Like falling in love, reading “Mating” can give one the feeling of being the first to discover something. The writer Dan Piepenbring, 36, said he read “Mating” in his 20s, when he was thinking about his long-term romantic prospects. Part of its appeal, he added, was that Mr. Rush did not seem to take a cynical view of male-female relationships.
“To me, there’s no pessimism in it,” said Mr. Piepenbring, who coordinated The Paris Review’s “Mating” book club in 2015, when he worked at the magazine. “That was exactly the kind of relationship I wanted to be in.”
Korby Lenker, a singer-songwriter, artist and writer in Nashville, said he was introduced to the novel through his godmother, who thought it might help him expand his vocabulary. In a review on his YouTube channel, Mr. Lenker, 46, described it as a “funny, smart love story about two people trying to discover what love between equals might look like.”
Some readers have noted that a largely positive portrayal of love relationships in general, and heterosexual relationships in particular, is a rarity in fiction. “From the American novel since 1960, you learn next to nothing about what love between a grown-up man and woman might entail, beyond adultery and alcoholism,” the critic Benjamin Kunkel wrote for The London Review of Books in 2013.
“I was doing a sort of retrospective analysis of how people who had come to, maybe not a consummate relationship, but a compelling relationship with a significant other,” Mr. Rush said.
Ideas about heterosexuality have changed considerably in the more than three decades since “Mating” was published. While most Americans still identify as heterosexual, the writer Asa Seresin in 2019 noted the rise of “heteropessimism,” the belief that being straight is “drab and predictable,” to the point that “indictments of heterosexuality have become something of a meme.” So while love remains among the greatest subjects for fiction writers, heterosexual love is, well, perhaps a bit passé — particularly the notion that a woman might devote so much energy to landing a man. In “Mating,” the narrator sets off on a harrowing journey across the desert to get hers.
“I think, for obvious reasons, heterosexuality is not particularly fashionable — indeed, it’s highly suspect,” said Hermione Hoby, the author of the novel “Virtue.” “So in some ways it makes sense that this book from 30 years ago should now find that talismanic force. It reads almost like a blueprint.”
Ms. Haigney said that she and her friends, a group of young women in their 20s, had developed what they called the “Mating” litmus test, which poses the question: Would you want a relationship like the one in the novel? Those who say yes tend to be people who are after a “grand, romantic experience,” she said — or those who have had relationships with “older, intelligent, emotionally troubled men” resembling Denoon.
Young women’s affinity with “Mating” might also have to do with Mr. Rush’s female narrator, through whom he gives voice to his thoughts on love, sex, feminism, the infrastructure of Denoon’s experimental all-woman society and just about every other topic under the sun.
Mr. Rush said the gender of his narrator did not invite much criticism at the time, to his knowledge; he remembered only one “protest movement” among book clubs in Canada, which, he said, had objected to his appropriation of a female interiority.
Some readers have criticized lines in “Mating” that seem to reveal Mr. Rush’s maleness peeking through. Lamenting her failed anthropology thesis, the narrator at one point employs a crass phrase referring to breasts. Mrs. Rush, always her husband’s first editor and reader, was opposed to the line. Mr. Rush kept it in.
“There were a couple of cases, I won’t say which, where she said that examples of feminine behavior were not truthful,” Mr. Rush said. “I fought her on a couple of them, and it turns out that she was right.”
If such a book were published today, it’s likely that its narrator would invite more scrutiny. Ann Close, Mr. Rush’s editor at Knopf, said she had no problem with it.
“I went with it right from the beginning — you either go with that or don’t,” she said. “I thought she very well represented an enormous number of women at that time.”
Self-possessed, willful and always “machinating,” the narrator of “Mating” is someone whom many young women still see themselves in, perhaps more so than some of the anxious, aimless female protagonists who populate some contemporary fiction written by women and are often deemed “relatable” by readers and critics.
“Why are only bad qualities ‘relatable’?” Ms. Oyler, 32, the author of the novel “Fake Accounts,” said in an interview. “In fact, if you were around very anxious, mournful women all the time, you would find it really tedious, and that doesn’t actually reflect my experience of women.”
Kathryn McKinney, the head of storytelling at Creative Time, a public arts nonprofit in New York, said that when she read the book in her 20s, traveling around Central America with a boyfriend who would later become her husband, the voice of the narrator was like a companion. “It was kind of like having a female friend around or an older sister who I was learning from,” said Ms. McKinney, 38.
Ms. Champagne, the start-up employee, said she found the narrator persuasive — so much so that she struggled to imagine recommending “Mating” to a man, because it seemed to be a “girl’s book,” in her view.
Maybe that’s partly because it is centered on a romantic relationship. But in Mr. Rush’s depiction, love is a serious and challenging intellectual endeavor for those who attempt it.
While the future of the protagonists is uncertain at the end of “Mating,” their real-life analogues know how such a relationship might play out. Mr. Rush now spends much of his time caring for his wife, who has dementia and was recently recovering from a broken hip.
“I guess what I’d want to say is that people should look at ‘Mating’ as the account of an experiment,” he said. “In terms of translating what’s in the book to their own personal lives, they should consider what will make an experiment work — but remember that it’s an experiment with no guaranteed outcome.”
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