How the Other Half Lives
Reproduction is the Flaw of Love by Lauren Grodstein (Dial Press, 2004)
If the number of hours that women have spent dissecting the words and actions of the men they love were put toward something like solving world hunger, everyone in the world would have a Salisbury steak and a lollipop. Since that’s never going to happen, Lauren Grodstein, in her new book Reproduction is the Flaw of Love, gives women of the world the next best thing. She looks inside the mind of Joel Miller, as his girlfriend Lisa takes a pregnancy test on the other side of the bathroom door. The bad news is, they are thinking about their old girlfriends. The good news is, well, they feel bad about it. Grodstein encapsulates it all, “He has not spoken to Blair Carter in a year and a half, and it unnerves Miller how frequently he thinks about her, and it embarrasses him that Lisa knows. Lisa knows, or at least she suspects. It’s the one thing she’s not up front about…Miller tries not to mention Blair either, which leaves a hole.” Even in the first few paragraphs of the story, Grodstein is expertly weaving the story of a relationship of convenience that suddenly becomes just a little bit inconvenient.
And yet, Reproduction is the Flaw of Love is so much more than sappy female wish fulfillment (which, a story with this abstracted plot line could easily be). It is the story of a life, of the things a person thinks about when their life is about to change drastically in one way or another. And Miller realizes early on that whether or not Lisa is pregnant, regardless, things are about to change, “he had fallen in with Lisa, and they are comfortable, and he doesn’t want that to change. How could they have let this happen?” But the story isn’t all melodrama. Grodstein lightens it up with trademark wit that is both sarcastic and touching, “A little girl in a raincoat…gives Miller a nasty look before she darts back across the street. What hateful creatures children are. What tyrants!...He wishes he’d known beforehand how much he disliked children. Maybe, he thinks, he would have thought twice before relying on condoms to stick it to Lisa.” And with droll section breaks titles such as, “Your Neutered Pet and You” and “Four Things Miller Didn’t Like About Donna McCrary Besides Her Name,” she moves this character portrait forward as it delves into the past of a lovable but complex character.
Joel Miller is the kind of guy you want to introduce to your parents. Sweet and well-intentioned, he has a list titled “Three Kinds of Men Miller Promised His Mother He Wouldn’t Become.” The list goes, “1. A Man Who Lies to His Woman 2. A Man Who Lies to His Mother 3. A Man Who Leaves.” While he probably doesn’t hand this list out on a first date, it’s certainly the kind of list any sane woman would jump at the chance to find in her boyfriend. And yet, he has his flaws, “in his almost twenty-nine years of existence, Miller has made a fair attempt to keep these promises to his mother. Frequently he has failed.” His foil is his best friend Grant who has a tendency to say things like, “‘The smell of it…It’s the best way to know a woman…Smell her out.’” Miller prefers the taking her to dinner way of getting to know a woman. What’s not to love? Despite his dicey situation, Grodstein effectively allows us to sympathize with this character in turmoil.
In addition to being an excellent character portrait, Reproduction is the Flaw of Love is also a stunning New York novel. From Park Slope to Astoria to the Upper East Side, Grodstein lovingly and accurately draws a city that she clearly adores as much as her characters do. Miller’s girlfriend Lisa goes to the Park Slope greenmarket to “jostle for dented blueberries and slightly viscous zucchini bread.” The narrator describes the array of ethnic restaurants on Miller’s street in Astoria (his favorite is the Kurdish place) and the building his ex-girlfriend lived in on East Seventieth Street as “prim and gray and serious, like an expression of displeasure.” Grodstein’s New York is not perfect, it is marred with downpours and dirty carpets, but it is, nonetheless, home.
With excellent characters and a city that feels like a player in and of itself, Reproduction is the Flaw of Love is an easy to read novel but one that stays with you. Its snappy prose and somber moments combine to create a story worthy of revisiting.