BOOK WORLD

Book review of 'This Is Not the Story You Think It Is' by Laura Munson

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By Carolyn See
Friday, April 9, 2010

THIS IS NOT THE STORY YOU THINK IT IS

By Laura Munson

Amy Einhorn/Putnam. 343 pp. $24.95

In June 2008, Laura Munson, a housewife in Montana, listened with dismay and disbelief as her husband told her he wasn't sure he loved her anymore, that he was planning to leave their lovely farmhouse and move into town. The children wouldn't mind, he said; they would certainly want him to be happy. But Munson's wish for her husband (who is never named here) to remain proved stronger, in the long run, than his wish to leave. "I don't buy it," she told him repeatedly. Then she asked him, "How can we give you the distance you need, without doing damage to the children?" She repeated those sentences until he begged her to stop.

Already a writer with 14 unpublished novels under her belt, Munson began composing a memoir about this troublesome summer, in which her husband, lacking the will or determination to actually move out, shifted instead to the traditional male fallback positions of staying out late, not calling home, coming and going without saying hello to her, never looking her in the eye and, during a wonderfully unpleasant afternoon in which they were teaching their daughter to water ski, taking the opportunity to opine to his wife, "God, you're so incompetent sometimes."

Munson emulates the Patient Griselda as her husband pulls out every passive-aggressive stunt in the book, and consoles herself by remembering the "Pitocin-induced" childbirth she endured and the lovely home that she keeps, "where there are apricots and corn and flowers on the windowsill." Her husband just gets more petulant when she suggests that he remodel the room over their garage to make a "man cave" or maybe take helicopter-flying lessons. She's so determined about this last idea that, on his birthday, she arranges for a helicopter to fly over their house and drop the first books of the study-course right down on him. She also suggests repeatedly that he go into therapy, as wronged wives are wont to do.

Meanwhile, fate was about to intervene. In August 2009, Munson published a short account of the initial I-Don't-Love-You/I-Don't-Buy-It episode as a "Modern Love" column in the New York Times. According to the book's publicity materials, the response to her article was so overwhelming that "the paper had to temporarily shut down the comments section" accompanying the online version of it. This level of reader response may have been occasioned by Munson's decision to commit to non-suffering. "Suffering sucks," she would write later, in the book. "Don't do it. Go home and love your wife. Go home and love yourself. Go home and base your happiness on one thing and one thing only: freedom. Choose freedom, not suffering. Create a life of freedom, not wanting."

A crabby reader might argue that if Munson really wanted freedom from suffering for her husband, she might have gracefully yielded up what he considered to be his freedom to him, but no, she wanted him home. She stated her policy, stuck to it with unnerving determination, and this policy obviously prevailed, because her husband decided to stay. Hundreds of grateful readers, most of them frazzled housewives at the ends of their ropes with one churlish spouse or another, declared wistfully on the Internet that Munson had changed their lives. Thus, she had achieved two goals: 1) Her husband remained married to her, and 2) she finally became a "writer," in actual publishing terms. Her "Artist's Statement," which read: "I write to shine a light on a dim or pitch black corner in order to provide relief for myself and others," had finally come true.

"This Is Not the Story You Think It Is" is the account of the four months following her husband's landmark statement, and with it she has made her landmark reply. It is a short version of the story of her life. Munson, 43, comes from distinguished American ancestry and has lived a life of privilege -- prep school, riding lessons, etc., including "the tea services and fussy silver vessels for things like toast and buns and gravy." She's been blessed with very good looks -- " 'I know who you are,' her husband-to-be blurts upon first meeting her at a frat party in college. 'Everybody knows who you are. . . . you're beautiful.' " -- and she "grew up with some of the richest people in the world," she tells us. When Munson and her husband lose their money, she endures a version of privation: "One by one we gave up our limited creature comforts -- the riding lessons, the housekeepers, the personal trainers, organic food, the gym membership, the dinners out." Yet she retains what she considers to be her calling. "I like to go around making things beautiful," she writes.

Religions have been recommending non-attachment for centuries. And in America, in particular, New Thought, the prototype of Positive Thinking, has been prevalent since the 1890s. Yet Munson espouses this set of laudable ideals as fervently as if she had personally discovered them. No doubt, her words will comfort many bereft wives; indeed, they already have. Others may wonder at her single-minded willfulness. But she's got her husband at home and her first book published. Criticism is irrelevant at this point.

Sunday in Outlook

-- The life of an Iranian spy

-- A pair of reluctant soldiers

-- How to get to heaven.

-- "The Politics of Happiness"

-- And why the British so love tea.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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