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Sarah Dunn's 'The Arrangement' Tackles An Open Marriage, Autism, Small-Town Life

Sarah Dunn’s new novel “ The Arrangement” is a humorous, sometimes light-hearted, but in-the-end poignant look at life in a small, fictional town situated on the Hudson River in New York.

The novel examines what happens when a 30-something couple launches a six month-long open marriage “arrangement,” and along the way explores small-town life, raising special needs children and ultimately, the very nature of marriage.

Dunn is author of two previous novels, and creator of the new TV series “ American Housewife” on ABC. She joins Here & Now‘s Robin Young to discuss her new novel.

Interview Highlights

On whether the open marriage was autobiographical

“No, we did not do that.”

On the novel’s setting

“My husband and I did move out to Garrison [New York] and I just moved into this perfect world. And I had two little kids, and a perfect house, and really a nice life. But I was trying to write a novel, and due to a sort of set of circumstances, the idea of writing about dating inside a marriage started to seem like a smart idea.”

On writing about the topics of open marriage and autism

“I was raising a special needs child at the same time, so my book became a place for me to sort of escape and to have fun with this idea and play with it and sort of see how it would play out. And I did have a sense that it was gonna play out not that great.”

“My son Harry was diagnosed, sort of flagged at age 1, and then it was just a series of new tests and new learning and bigger problems, smaller problems. But the funny thing about Harry is he’s very articulate and he’s very funny. And so I just started writing a lot of it down. And now I’m actually glad I wrote it down because I think I would’ve blacked out a lot of my memories of that time in my life because it was so difficult. Part of what feels fresh about it on some level is, I don’t think a lot of mothers with autistic children have time or whatever to write a novel. And so the fact that I was scribbling this down while I was in the trenches gives it a certain truth, well because it is true, actually.”


On how ‘the arrangement’ plays out

“When I was writing the book, I did try to think of what would actually happen and I sort of think that in real life the man would just choose the low-hanging fruit, you know, the first option. And [Izzy, Owen’s new open marriage partner] was a fun character because I feel like she had her own sort of wisdom. She sort of knows at the beginning this is not a good idea and she goes along with it, too, obviously, for her own reasons. And then for Lucy, I wanted her romantic entanglement to be a little bit more of a fantasy and to a little bit more for the reader to just imagine themselves in that situation. And so she ends up with a guy in New York City named Ben.”

On the characters wanting to believe open marriage will work

“I do think everybody wants everything. And one of the things about being in a marriage over a long period of time is that it can’t really compete with that feeling of falling in love again or that feeling of maybe even just kissing someone for the first time. So, you know, marriage has its consolations and its wonderful things and it’s great for a family, and it’s also great for your soul, I believe, but there is a tension between these two sides of people.”

On the novel as an escape

“The novel actually was, for me, was a wonderful kind of hammock to live in while I was having my struggles with my son and just, life. It was kind of a fun escape and I hope in a way that it works for other people that way too. It’s a fun, in a weird way marriage-affirming escape.”

On how those close to her react to the autobiographical nature of her writing

“I have two trusted friends who I had read a very early draft. And they actually had me pull out a couple of paragraphs that they thought would deliberately hurt somebody. I mean, I’ve always in my books willingly hurt people in the past by stealing their stories. But I feel by novel No. 3, there’s no need to do that. So I pulled a couple things out.”

Book Excerpt: ‘The Arrangement’

By Sarah Dunn

After it was over, all of it, Lucy found herself making the point again and again that it had been a mutual decision. To her aunt Nancy, who was disgusted by the entire business and decided to pretend it never happened. To her sister, Anna, who was fascinated and demanded all the details. To the ladies of Beekman — the quiet few who envied her freedom and her daring, and the bigger, more vocal contingent who would have nothing more to do with her, who wanted her to Stay Away from Their Husbands — Lucy always said it had been a fully conscious and completely mutual decision. Nobody believed her, of course. These things are never mutual. One person always wants it more than the other, one of you is keeping a secret, somebody has a plan. But Lucy always said this about the Arrangement: it was a mutual decision, she and Owen both went into it with eyes wide open, and it had brought certain unfortunate things to light.

It was a Saturday evening early that July. The leaves were bright green and the fireflies were out in force. Lucy and her old friend Victoria were in Lucy’s kitchen prepping food for the grill while their husbands were out on the deck drinking wine, but it could have just as easily been the other way around. Beekman was a town where men cooked at dinner parties. The men of Beekman not only cooked, they made things like pickles and cheese and beer and sauerkraut. They ground their own spices to rub on their pork tenderloins and made their own mayonnaise, just to see if it was worth it (it wasn’t). Even in- side Lucy’s head it sounded affected and awful, worse in a lot of ways than the Brooklyn so many of them had lived in before, the Brooklyn they’d either been priced out of or willingly fled, the Brooklyn that Victoria and Thom still called home.

Victoria was painfully thin, and her skin was pale and al- ready crepey under her blue eyes. She teetered around on her trademark vintage heels, which made her look like she might trip and fall straight into late middle age. Thom, with his wild dark curls and two-day stubble that sparkled with flecks of gray, still looked good.

“I called Frank the other day to see if he wanted to go hear this new band with us,” Thom said to Owen — Thom and Victoria still had new bands they went to see, even though they had a five-year-old — “and he couldn’t, because he was going out to Hoboken to learn Japanese rope tying.”

“All I heard was ‘Japanese rope tying,’” Lucy said as she pushed the screen door open with the plate of cheese and grapes she was carrying.

Victoria followed with two bottles of wine. “Oh my God, Thom, are you telling him about Frank and Jim?”

“Frank and Jim?” Lucy asked. “You met them at our wedding.” “Your fabulous gay friends.”

“They’re a little less fabulous these days,” said Victoria. “They got married and had two kids and moved to the suburbs.”

“They’re still pretty fabulous,” said Thom.

“I just mean they’re not jetting off to Milan for the weekend anymore. They coach peewee soccer together instead.”

“That’s sweet,” said Lucy.

“Yeah, it is sweet,” said Thom. “What they have is sweet.” Victoria looked across the table at her husband and rolled her eyes.

“What?” Thom said to her. “What did I say?”

“Thom is a little obsessed with this ‘arrangement’ Frank and Jim have.”

“I wouldn’t call it obsessed,” said Thom. “Okay, yes, I am a little obsessed. I just find it fascinating.”

“Tell us,” said Owen.

Thom reached for the wine and refilled glasses as he spoke. “Okay, so, they’ve been married for about six years. They have two little girls, a cozy house in Larchmont, and a place up in Vermont. Frank is a stay-at-home dad while Jim commutes into the city every day. Frank is the president of the PTA, Jim is a deacon in their church. It’s like a fifties marriage, really. Dinner is on the table every night, they argue about how much money Frank spends and whether the girls should be forced to learn Mandarin or take violin lessons — ”

Victoria cut him off and said, “Except . . .”

“Except they’re both allowed to sleep with other people.” “You mean they’re swingers?” asked Lucy.

“I don’t know the terminology,” said Thom. “They call it an open marriage.”

“Swinging implies, I think, participation,” said Victoria. “Like, watching each other do it or swapping or something. An open marriage is more, um, furtive?”

“Frank told me they don’t talk about it,” said Thom. “He said they each give each other a realm of privacy. He says it works out great.”

“We saw them a few weeks ago. They’re happy. The girls are happy. They’re the most stable couple we know.”

“How can that be stable?” asked Lucy.

“They’ve got rules,” said Thom. “They don’t let things get emotional. I think they’re only allowed to sleep with a given person a certain number of times. And some people are off- limits. Exes, mutual friends, coworkers, like that. ‘Out of town’ seems to be a bit of a free-for-all. The whole thing is pretty clearly hammered out.”

“Like Elton John and his husband,” said Victoria.

“That was a threesome in a paddling pool filled with olive oil,” Lucy pointed out.

Owen lifted his wineglass. “Allegedly.”

“You gotta hand it to gay men,” Thom said. “They’ve cracked the code.”

“Yeah,” said Lucy. “I bet their kids don’t destroy their furni- ture either. Or throw up in the middle of the night.”

“They get all this” — and here Thom gestured big, taking in the entire scene: the house, the yard, the wine, the friends, the coziness of domesticity, and the comfort of long, familiar love — “and sex too.”

“Hey,” Lucy said. “I’ve known Victoria for a long time. You get sex.”

“Not the kind of sex those guys get.” “He’s right,” said Victoria. “He doesn’t.” “We have sex,” said Thom.

“But it’s always with each other,” Victoria said, laughing. She and Thom clinked glasses and kissed.

Excerpted from the book THE ARRANGEMENT by Sarah Dunn. Copyright © 2017 by Sarah Dunn. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.