Love, commitment, and parenthood: Thoughts on “I Am My Beloveds” by Jonathan Papernick
The names of the main characters in Papernick’s polyamorous book, Ben and Shira, reminded me too much of Ben Sira, the author of “Book of Sirach”, aka Ecclesiasticus for me to ignore it. So I went back to this wisdom book and reread a bit of it, when this quote popped up (Ben Sirach: 25:1-2; Douay-Rheims version)
“With three things my spirit is pleased, which are approved before God and men: The concord of brethren, and the love of neighbours, and man and wife that agree well together.”
I found it significantly parallel to the themes of the “I Am My Beloveds”: love, commitment, and parenthood. Ben is bouncing back and forth between these three, trying to make the best decisions at any given moment. However, he often finds himself being swept away by other people’s words, actions, and emotions. He loves his wife exclusively, but she wants to and did open their marriage and got a lover. What she was not fully prepared for was him falling in love with someone else as well. Combine this the fact that with Ben and Shira wanted to have kids, but couldn’t and you have the setup for a classical tragedy. It diverges from the classics because they are working out what being polyamorous means for them. Love and commitment sometimes strengthen each other but other times they conflict with each other. The level of drive for becoming a parent also comes in different sizes of waves for Ben and Shira and is not necessarily synchronized. Hence the feeling of being lost between love, commitment, and fatherhood.
Ben’s intentions are generally generous, but there are occasions when he falters. He is trying to do what is “approved before God and men”, particularly keeping “shalom bayit”, aka domestic harmony and good relations between husband and wife, which is one of the focuses of the Sirach quote. His attempts are honest, yet not sufficient until towards the end of the book. Once he stops acting from fear and becomes a leader of his own life and relations he gets closer to reaching if not peace at least a compromise that can make him and his beloveds content enough.
William Styron–author of Sophie’s Choice and many other books–said in an interview: “A good book should leave you…. slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading it.” By this definition, it was a great book. I was definitely exhausted by the experience. As I have zero polyamorous inclination but have no problems if others are I was trying to identify myself with the characters of the book. It is such an enervating, hard work to try to live by a different value system than your own, even just for the few hours in your head, while you are reading a book. The emotions are the same as in traditional relationships. The complexities though are multifold as there are more people involved, hence the possibilities of conflicts increased and manifested too. I have managed to live lives that I wouldn’t have lived otherwise. It made me appreciate that I live in a simpler arrangement.
The ways it is a Jewish book is many. Starting with the title, which is a play on the Hebrew Bible passage that is often written on ketubahs, decorated, Jewish marriage contracts: “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3). Shira is an artist who is engaged with her Judaism and is creating Jewish art pieces. Their attitude to Judaism is summed up nicely in chapter 4: “They cooked Shabbat dinners together and fasted once on Yom Kippur until their stomachs overruled and they ordered the biggest Chicago-style pizza they could find, laughing drunk on boxed wine for all they would need to atone for.” Objection against tattooing on the bases that one would not receive a Jewish burial, raising their (not-yet-existing) children according to Jewish tradition, not picking a name for the children before they are born… the book is jammed with these kinds of hints and references. Ben and Shira’s Jewish identity clearly has deeper roots than many other parts of who they are.
The exhaustion I felt riding along with Ben’s emotional rollercoaster was worth it because of the author’s exquisitely crafted sentences and segments. They truly represent states of minds and fictional realities:
- At that moment, Pamela’s fingernails were the very pinnacle of feminine elegance.
- You’re such a processor. Why can’t you just enjoy the moment without analyzing every word and gesture for meaning?
- Ben told Pamela he grew up a nice Jewish boy on suburban Long Island with all the advantages one could ask for, experienced an ordinary late-century childhood with baseball and bike riding and video games, state school in Binghamton, girlfriends in a minor key, and no major trauma.
Papernick’s characters are magnificently alive because he not just observes the wide range of possible human emotions but also manages to capture and express them through inner monologs and interpersonal dialogs that all feel real(istic).
Disclaimer: I have received a copy of this book and a small amount from the publisher which did not affect my review in any way.
Ben Seidel wasn’t sure how serious they were when he and his wife Shira discussed having an open marriage. But when Shira announces that she is going on a date with Liz, any ambiguity evaporates. Suddenly, every day is new terrain for Ben, navigating between keeping things together with Shira and exploring new partners. And when one of those new partners begins to matter to him more than he ever anticipated, he discovers that the complexities of this new life are only just beginning.
Bracingly honest, refreshingly sexy, and deeply empathetic, I AM MY BELOVEDS is the work of a superior storyteller, making real a lifestyle that might be as close as your own bedroom door.
Year first published: 2022
The book's page at the pubisher's site