Erin McGraw’s Better Food For A Better World

by Nicole Sheets

I’m less than a month away from my own nuptials, so a chunk of my summer reading has been accounts of weddings and marriage. For starters: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed, David Finch’s memoir The Journal of Best Practices, Rebecca Mead’s look at the bridal industry, One Perfect Day. And now I can add Erin McGraw’s novel Better Food For a Better World (Slant Press, 2013). Sure, it’s the only work of fiction on there, so far, but it’s a compelling study in different paths of couplehood.

McGraw quickly draws us into the drama of three couples, college-friends-turned-business-partners who run an ice cream business called Natural High. There’s a timeless hippieness to the shop, where carob chips abound and both kids and adults sing along to “A Hard Day’s Night.” McGraw makes a fleeting reference to texting, and an iPhone is purchased in an act of defiance, but Natural High is a very landline kind of place.

The three couples at the heart of the book are under plenty of pressure, including the shared weight of an unrelenting spring heat wave and the vicissitudes of a small business.  They carry the loneliness of their individual desires: a new job, a former job, a child. That these couples are entwined not only as business partners but as Life Ties members adds fuel to the fire.

The “Entr’acte” chapters are the Greek chorus of the book, the all-seeing “we” of the Life Ties group. Loosely affiliated with a church, Life Ties is somewhere between a marriage support group, a cult of true believers, a petri dish for gossip, and a social gathering complete with snacks and coffee urn. The weekly meetings are a genius plot device, a pressure cooker for confessions and questions from McGraw’s characters. And, of course, the meetings are just as much about what’s left unsaid, such as when Sam observes Cecilia and David: “Wretched as they obviously were, at least they dwelled in their wretchedness together. Their misery sealed them into a single unit, seamless as an egg.”

Life Ties, and the reader, keep a special eye on Sam and Vivy. Part of the pleasure of the book is reconciling several versions of the same marriage which “had never been fully open, but its door was left ajar.” Vivy used to think of her marriage as “a game that depended on hot grace as much as cunning”; Sam despairs that their union “had turned into an endless rehearsal of tactical espionage, drill for a war that never quite broke out.”

In heated moments, the pithy wisdom of Life Ties backfires.  Sam thinks “‘Communication is the Key that Opens All Doors.’ Not all doors should be opened. Anybody who’d been married more than twenty minutes knew that much.”

The credo of Life Ties and the uplifting slogans printed on Natural High’s napkins are such close genres that it’s tricky (and perhaps fruitless) to try to tell them apart.

“Right Imagination is the Parent of Right Desire”

“Responsible Action is the Gate to Freedom”

“The Boat of Commitment Can Sail Over the Waters of Uncertainty”

“Our Goal is Not Gold, but Wholeness”

Like the session titles at an academic conference, these proverbs parody themselves. The earnest do-gooderness at their core often leaves a tang of either smarminess or ridicule in the mouths of the novel’s characters.

Do I want a marriage like any of those portrayed in the novel? Not really. But rather than a marriage manual, McGraw’s novel is a funny, memorable, sharp portrait of flawed and shifting love.

Besides, every marriage is unique.

At least, that’s what the literature suggests.

Nicole Sheets is an assistant professor at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, and the web editor of Rock & Sling

The cover art is from here.

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