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Monday, March 07, 2005

Electric Forgiveness

The skies were blue and the temperature was warm Sunday, so I treated myself to a couple of house of Meg Wolitzer’s new novel, The Position. When I finally finished it around 10 pm, I shut off the light and snuggled into bed, content and fulfilled, even though the hours of reading meant I would face piles of laundry on Monday.

Wolitzer has done it again, written a book that illuminates the pleasures and contradictions of the modern American family. Her last book, The Wife, an amazing story of a talented young woman who marries her writing teacher and subsumes her own ambitions for the next 30 years, ripped away the fa├žade of a family to reveal its innermost workings. The Position is also the story of a family, but seen through the prism of a book and its lasting consequences.

The story opens in 1975 when the four Mellow children – Holly, Michael, Dashiell, and Claudia, ages 6 to 15, pull a new book off the shelf in their family room. They open it to see graphic illustrations of their parents making love, often in positions they have created, including one known as “Electric Forgiveness.”

No child likes to admit his or her parents have sex. But Roz and Paul Mellow are so in love with one another, so dedicated to exploring the ways sex brings them closer together that they put their journey in front of the needs of their children. They write a Joy of Sex-type book called “Pleasuring: One Couple’s Journey to Fulfillment.” The book becomes an international bestseller, prompts couples around the world to re-examine their attitudes towards sex -- and disrupts the Mellows’ lives in ways no one anticipated.

Thirty years later, Roz, now divorced from Paul, wants to reissue the book. She teaches human sexuality at Skidmore College, but misses the limelight, when she and Paul were profiled in major magazines and could lure hundreds of people to lectures. But her ex-husband is still bitter that his wife left him for another man two years after the book came out and opposes its reissue.

Like Jonathan Franzen’s Corrections, Wolitzer explores how a family fractures, how a group of people linked by blood and history finds itself barely relating to one another. The Mellows live in different cities and struggle with deeply flawed intimate relationships. The children have never recovered from the embarrassment they felt at seeing their mother and father displayed on a large white bed in a dizzying array of sexual positions. They also feel they can never live up to the standards set by their erotically-charged parents. Only one of the children, Dashiell, has anything approaching a loving supportive relationship, but he, too, is angry at his parents.

Not a lot actually happens in this book, but it’s sheer pleasure to see how Wolitzer moves her characters along anyway. There are family visits and dinners and flashbacks and one character falls in love. Like real life, the action comes from within.

Wolitzer will be at a Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco on Tuesday, April 19.

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