In 1991, a book by Julia Phillips became an instant masterpiece of its genre — inadvertent self-indictment. Yet 19 years later, the all-consuming narcissism of her “You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again” may have finally been outdone.
British journalist Hephzibah Anderson is the victor in this dubious sweepstakes, and anyone who has made it through her tell-all “Chastened: The Unexpected Story of My Year Without Sex,” might safely wager that the title will be hers for years, if not decades, to come.
Granted, beyond their respective genius for self-damnation, “You’ll Never Eat lunch in This Town Again” and “Chastened” are two very different sorts of debacles. Phillips was out for revenge, while Anderson seems to crave only attention. In parading her fashionable London lovers through 264 pages of chaotic prose, she has applied for membership in the hugely successful club of women authors who gave us the hapless but also clever urban sexpots of “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and “Sex and the City.”
Anderson faces two problems here: She’s rarely funny, and when she is, it’s inadvertent, as in this comment on her frustration with a lover who is engaged to another woman: “Eventually I couldn’t take it any more. I started listening …"
What she hears is that he isn’t in love with her. What she realizes is that for nigh on a decade, since dumping her college sweetheart, she had not heard the words “I love you” from a partner. Chastened, she determines to go a year without sex, which she takes pains to define as penile penetration.
As she determines to disentangle love and sex, she goes shopping, purchasing a “giant, mystical black turtleneck.” Freshly decked out, Anderson’s flirtation with chastity begins.
Chronological chapter headings from September to August suggest an organized rendering. “Chastened” offers anything but that.
Anderson cannot relate one thing without seizing the opportunity to tell you several dozen others. It takes her six pages to buy that turtleneck, during which time she detours through annihilating observations about her companions in the dressing room, memories of her childhood in East Anglia and some fast thumbing through several hundred years of fashion history.
Her appetite for these asides seems to stem from boredom with the her premise, which soon warps from resisting men to teasing accounts of men forced to resist her. Lovers led on then let down are spared complete humiliation through use of pseudonyms and nicknames such as “the Beau,” “Mr. Vermilion,” “N,” “Rafiq,” “Pasha” and the “Quiet Guy.”
The only man afforded some semblance of personality is a translator named Jake, and it is her obsession with Jake that provides the slimmest of through-lines to Anderson’s jumbled recollections.
Jake also figures in her best erotic writing. Halfway through her sexless year, Anderson commingles Jake with Pasha, writing longingly of “Jake’s smile and Pasha’s hands — those same hands that I’ve seen spoon foie gras on toast and caress my nipple.”
By March, she’s so routinely tussling naked with men, mainly Jake, that after being pinned to a wall and felt up she will only say, “What follows is the hottest, most X-rated nonsex I’ve ever had.”
Anderson tells us that during her twenties she was a book critic capable of reviewing 200 novels in a year. What makes this book so frustrating is that she learned so little about what it takes to move a story forward.
Unburdened by narrative, she can form nice sentences conveying sharp thought. Witness the logic applied as she weights the advantages of chastity: “Devalue the word no and the market is flooded, causing yes to depreciate simultaneously.”
Those homesick for Blighty will find vivid descriptions of British weather (oh, such rain!). But it takes a good storm to divert Anderson’s attention from herself. “Chastity has returned to me a sense of the private, of an inner space that is mine and mine alone,” she confides late in “Chastened.”
If only that were true. As she resumes sex at the conclusion of the book, it’s still all about her, and it’s still loveless.
Green writes the Dry Garden column for The Times. She is completing a book on water in the Great Basin Desert. Her website is https://www.chanceofrain.com.