Liz Baudler reviews The Marrying Kind, by Ken O'Neill

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This is an interesting review to do this week, as my home state continues its push for same-sex marriage and the Supreme Court rules on the issue nationally. In Ken O’Neill’s debut novel The Marrying Kind, one man decides to take on the issue in a singular manner. Adam More’s profession? Wedding planner.

Let’s get one thing out of the way. This is not a Michael Cunningham novel. Its prose is not stunning, its premise not fundamentally complex, its characters more caricatures than functional humans. Still, The Marrying Kind is thoroughly entertaining, even, dare I say, engrossing. At first I was put off by its campiness, but when I gave up being annoyed I discovered I didn’t want to put the damn thing down. This is not a normal feeling: there’s usually excitement followed by disappointment, or sheer disappointment or excitement all the way through. While not maybe the highest satire, there’s a good deal of Confederacy of Dunces in The Marrying Kind, (or at the very least His Girl Friday).

So, the plot: Adam and Steven, happy couple (note the names. I told you it was campy), conscientious wedding planner and loafing columnist for free gay tabloid. Adam plans weddings. Adam and Steven get invited to weddings. After a series of disappointing wedding experiences, Adam concludes that perhaps he shouldn’t be planning a ceremony that he cannot have himself with any sort of legal meaning. He urges all gay members of wedding-related professions to follow suit, the upshot being A. New York’s entire wedding infrastructure crumbles, and B. Adam’s sister and Steven’s brother, after a long fractious courtship, decide to marry each other, and since part of Adam’s wedding boycott is not attending weddings…both incredible hijinks and friction ensue.

From an aging gay man cursed by a hot name, (Brad), who dresses in hip hop clothing attempting to look cooler and who freaks out every time he steps on a scale, to a vehemently anti-marriage straight college professor who falls in love with planning a wedding (Adam’s sister Amanda), exaggerated characters abound. But while these characters are ridiculous and at times, stereotypical, there’s a fundamental sadness behind some of them, like Brad, making a fool of himself to appear younger to his 20-something lover.

O’Neill shows great wisdom about relationship dynamics. Part of what makes The Marrying Kind feel so believable despite its absurdity is Adam and Steven’s witty but still very genuine interactions. They start off with a perfect relationship, but O’Neill achieves a great deal by letting the harmony be strained, and then ultimately fail. He also writes from a moving place about the intricacies of family, especially families who don’t get along. There’s a moving anecdote about, of all things, Steven’s grandmother’s relationship with her sister, and the desire to remain close to family is ultimately a huge motivation for characters.

Again, this is no great drama,  nor the funniest or most thoughtful book ever written. But it addresses the most important civil rights issue of our time, and taps into the territory of satire in a way I haven’t seen in a while. Not bad for a first novel.

PS: Great feature on O’Neill’s website is a list of links to get involved in the fight for marriage equality. Yes, I believe in marriage equality. And you should too.

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