In The Big Love author Sarah Dunn’s latest novel, The Arrangement, Lucy and Owen have a pretty happy marriage. They live in a picturesque community in upstate New York, where they’re raising their sweet (but challenging) young son. Still, something between them isn’t quite what it used to be. So when another couple comes by for dinner and the conversation turns to open marriages, Lucy and Owen decide it’s time for an experiment — they’ll give it a try for six months, following a strict set of agreed-upon guidelines. But will this “arrangement” really be the marriage cure-all they want?
Get a preview of Dunn’s hilarious, compulsively readable book in EW’s exclusive excerpt, below. The Arrangement is available now.
Excerpt from The Arrangement by Sarah Dunn
“You want the truth?” Lucy said, leaning against the avocado-colored kitchen cabinet. Lucy and Owen had planned on installing new cabinets since the day they set eyes on the house. Instead, they’d pretended for each other that they’d grown used to them.
“Yes,” Victoria said.
“I’ll only say if you will too.”
“I’ll say, I don’t mind,” said Victoria. She was dressing the salad while Lucy watched. “Fourteen.”
“That’s a good number,” said Lucy.
“I feel pretty happy with it,” said Victoria.
Lucy pointed both of her thumbs at herself and announced, “Twenty-seven.”
“Twenty-seven?” said Victoria. “Seriously?”
“I was a bit promiscuous. In college,” said Lucy. “And after college.”
“She whored it up, my wife did,” said Owen, who was kneeling in front of his wine fridge and studying the bottles.
“Don’t slut-shame me,” said Lucy.
“No slut-shaming!” agreed Victoria. “What about you, Owen? How many women did you sleep with before you met dear Lucy here.”
“I don’t know,” said Owen, getting to his feet with two bottles of Ridge Zinfandel.
“You don’t know?” said Victoria. “Nope,” said Owen. “No idea.”
“It was a lot,” said Lucy. “A lot a lot.” “Yeah,” said Victoria. “Thom too.”
“I think I’ll start the coals.”
“I’m not sure it’s safe for you to be around fire, honey.” “I’ll help him.”
“Great,” said Victoria. “Now they’ll both go up in flames.”
Everyone loved Owen’s marinade. There were lots and lots of compliments on the marinade as they sat on the deck and ate dinner with linen napkins and the Laguiole steak knives with rosewood handles Lucy’s cousin had given them as a wedding present. God, men and their marinades, thought Lucy. You’d think they’d figured out how to split the atom when all they did was put some Worcestershire and soy sauce into a Ziploc bag.
“I’m at the age when women start to go crazy,” said Victoria. “My girlfriends are all going nuts. If their husbands knew half of what was going on, their heads would never stop spinning.”
“Why?” Owen asked. “What’s going on?”
“I can’t tell you. This is a secret all of us are keeping from all of you.”
“Give us one example,” said Owen.
“Okay, I have a friend, who I will not name, who is married,”
said Victoria. “And she makes out with people.” “What do you mean?”
“Like at a bar, she’ll make out with someone,” said Victoria. “She does it at least once a week.”
“Who goes to bars?” asked Lucy. “Who has time for things like that?”
“She makes the time,” said Victoria. “Do I know her?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“That means I know her.” “You do.”
“Spill it.” “Perfect Jen.”
“Perfect Jen makes out with strangers at bars?”
“Who is Perfect Jen?” Owen asked.
“This annoying mother I used to know when Wyatt was little,” explained Lucy. “She made her own organic baby food and she ate it herself for dinner every night so she could stay super-skinny.”
“I shouldn’t have told you who it was, but I did it to make a very particular point,” Victoria said, “which is that this woman who we know and who appears to be happy and perfect and has two kids and seems normal — ”
“She’s not normal — ”
“She’s reasonably normal on the surface,” Victoria said. “This semi-normal woman is, in fact, like a grenade with the pin pulled out.”
“Do you think she’d make out with me?” asked Owen. “Probably! She probably would! She’s not picky.”
“I read somewhere that women tend to have affairs before their children are born, and men have them after,” Owen said. “Men are like, My work here is done.”
“Then it’s too late for us,” Lucy said to Victoria. “But not for us!” Thom said to Owen.
Owen opened another bottle of wine.
There was no coffee served that night. Nobody asked for it, and Lucy didn’t offer any. Caffeine seemed altogether beside the point. Instead, Owen brought out a bottle of locally made bourbon after the last bite of steak was eaten and the marinade was commented upon one final time, and even though the bourbon tasted like tree bark, everybody just kept on drinking.
“Suppose I found out that Thom cheated on me on a business trip,” Victoria said. “He had a one-night stand, met some- one at his hotel bar and slept with her. Everyone would understand if I kicked him out of the house or even filed for divorce, but if I told people I let him have sex with women on his business trips, that we had an arrangement, I’d be a social pariah.”
“How is it that as a culture we’ve decided that it’s completely rational to break up a nuclear family because one of the parents has sex with somebody else, even if it’s only one time, or a minor fling, or whatever,” Thom said, “but it’s shameful and perverted to make some temporary accommodations inside a marriage so all parties can get their needs met while doing their primary job, which is staying together and raising their kids as an intact family unit?”
“I’m not arguing with you,” said Owen.
“Marriage is about kids,” says Thom. “It’s about having kids and raising them together and not leaving them no matter what.” He gestured toward his wife. “Both of our parents got divorced while we were young and it was the single biggest force that shaped our lives.”
“Yeah, but I’m not sure marriage should be like dating,” said Lucy. “Where you’re always looking for someone to hook up with.”
“Not looking for it, necessarily. Just, not having to shut it down if it happens,” said Victoria. “Being able to feel like a sexual person walking through the world again.”
“I barely feel like a sexual person when I’m actually having sex,” Lucy said, and then she laughed at her own joke.
“It’s almost over for us, Lucy,” Victoria said. “I have a friend, she’s ten years older than I am, and she says it’s like one day, everything changes. It’s like someone flips a switch.”
“That’s really depressing,” said Lucy.
“The other day, I was dropping Flannery off at Life Drawing, and a kid in his class asked me if I was his grandmother.”
“It’s true,” said Victoria. “And let me tell you, you don’t bounce back from that one overnight. You stop thinking you’ve got all the time in the world pretty quick.”
“Are those crickets?” Thom asked. “They’re frogs,” said Lucy. “They’re really loud.”
“They croak until they find a mate for the night, and then they shut up,” explained Owen. “If you wake up in the middle of the night, there are four sad horny frogs still out there croaking.”
“I can’t believe you live someplace that has frogs,” said Victoria.
“We also have chickens,” said Lucy.
“I saw your chickens on Facebook,” Victoria said. “I refuse to
discuss them. You have gone full-on Green Acres on me and I’m not sure how much longer we can be friends.”
“I’ll send you home with some eggs,” said Lucy.
“I won’t take them. That would only encourage you.”
“I need something. And Thom needs something. We’re both tired of this persistent, I don’t know . . . low-grade dissatisfaction with life, I guess,” Victoria said. “Do you know how often we have sex?”
“Never,” said Thom as he served himself a narrow slice of the fruit tart Victoria had picked up at Pain Quotidien that morning.
“Not never never,” said Victoria. “But it might as well be never.”
“And the weird thing is, we’re both fine with it,” said Thom. “That’s the scariest part.”
“We can feel ourselves slipping into that kind of stale marriage where you are both fine not having sex, letting that part of you sort of wither up and die, and as we talked about it we realized we didn’t want that, but we didn’t want to split up either.”
“This is officially the strangest conversation that has ever taken place on our deck,” said Owen.
“I don’t get it,” said Lucy. “Do you still love each other?”
“Yes!” said Thom.
“Of course we do.”
“Then why are you even talking about this?”
“Let me try to explain,” said Victoria. She took a big, dramatic pause and then reached over and held on to Thom’s hand. “I want to grow old with this man. I love him, and he loves me. He’s my best friend and my favorite person in the world and the only person I want sleeping in my bed with me at night. I want to go on vacations together and have a life together and have Flannery come home with his kids at Christmas when we’re seventy. I just don’t, at the moment and, if I’m totally honest, for a while now, really, feel like having sex with him.”
“Maybe it’s your hormones,” Lucy said helpfully. “Maybe you need a patch or something.”
“Our therapist has ruled that out.”
“You’ve talked about this with a therapist?” said Lucy.
“He’s a bit unconventional, but he’s interested in finding ways to make long-term marriages work,” said Thom. “Marriages where you don’t have to disown a big part of yourself in order to stay in the relationship.”
“My father cheated on my mother for their entire marriage,” said Victoria. “It completely destroyed her. I don’t want that for myself. I don’t want to give up all my power.”
“This is the way nobody gets hurt. Not Victoria or me, not Flannery.”
“Has it started yet?” Lucy asked. “Do you guys both have other people on the side?”
“It hasn’t started yet,” Victoria said. “But we’re doing it.” “We are,” said Thom.
“Wow,” said Lucy. “Just, wow.”
Excerpted from THE ARRANGEMENT with permission of Little, Brown and Company, © 2017 Sarah Dunn