Culture

The Messy Laments of the Perpetual Wedding Guest

5.2_DT0318_JenDoll-2
05/09/14
In the Magazine
Never the bride, but always watching and wondering about this ancient and often fraught ritual Shaminder Dulai; Riverhead

Former Village Voice and Atlantic Wire staffer Jen Doll makes her living as a freelance writer, but she might reasonably supplement that with stints as a wedding consultant: she has witnessed dozens of nuptials, more than most see in a lifetime, though Doll is a few years shy of 40. They have spanned from the early eighties through last year, from Jamaica to Vermont, and they are chronicled with the sharply wielded wit that presumably got her invited to so many weddings in the first place in her new memoir, Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest.

The concept is simple. It’s the bride and groom who hold our fawning attention, but the guests all play starring roles in their own private dramas—a recurring sort of “nuptial-themed Groundhog Day,” with a flurry of possible actions that fit within the confines of the same relentless ritual—and who will tell their stories? Doll has attended just over 30 weddings, she estimates, of which 17 make it into the book. Wedding No. 32—or is it 33? God knows—is slotted for two days after our interview.

“Growing up, I feel like we were always putting the bride and groom on this pedestal—like, this is their perfect day, ignore your own emotions and feelings,” Doll tells me. “If the book opens up a dialogue to talk about wedding guests as people, too, that would make me happy.”

The author has only ever been a guest—even a bridesmaid—but never the bride, a fact she returns to (and returns to again) with varying degrees of bemusement, acceptance, and alarm as a single woman gorging herself on a noxious culture of couplehood.

“I think it made me more curious about anthropologically investigating it,” she says of her singlehood. “Why do we do this? If I haven’t done it, does it mean I have some weird flaw in me? And if I do, what is it? It’s like continuing to go to a dinner where people always order hamburgers, and you’re like: ‘I don’t get hamburgers!’”

We are packed in at Walter’s, a bistro-type joint in Fort Greene, Brooklyn where neither of us have ordered hamburgers. Just a few blocks away is the apartment where she pounded out the first draft of the book in one harried month last spring. (“I was just like, ‘Oh, easy, I can bang out 4,000 words a day! I do that anyway!’”) Today, Doll, a frequent books blogger and critic with an affinity for young-adult novels, is trying out the view from the the other side of the promotional cycle.

Save the Date began as a blog post, she tells me, this one for The Awl’s sister site The Hairpin. Well, not quite: “It was my idea before I wrote the Hairpin piece to turn it into a book,” she clarifies. But a Hairpin essay in the spring of 2012, “All the Weddings I Have Ever Been to, as I Remember Them,” served as a tentative sketch, testing the waters—which, two-hundred-some-odd comments later, were judged safe for deeper exploration. “To me, that exhibited this idea that these are universal stories, even if the specifics are different. It’s like a universal connection that women of a certain age share this.”

A book proposal followed that fall, dashed off with some urgency before Hurricane Sandy shuttered the publishing industry and sold to Riverhead Books by Thanksgiving. And then, the writing. With each of its chapters devoted to a particular wedding, Save the Date is not quite chronological, though not exactly random, either. It traces two distinct shifts, one sociological (how the young and hastily arranged marriages of the author’s parents’ generation gave way to years-long engagements and socially accepted singlehood) and one personal (how a euphoric, eight-year-old Doll, jumping on a bed in joy after her first wedding, grew into a jaded, wedding-sick thirty-something).

Between those extremes, Doll witnesses stirring declarations of love set upon tropical islands and in nostalgic high school homecomings. Wedding experiences hinge on the age and life stage they collide with, she says, so she followed graphic novelist Alison Bechdel’s practice of digging through old diary entries, where forgotten details and revelations—like the discovery, at that hometown wedding, that her high school boyfriend had eloped—let her channel her perception at the time.

Those stories are rife with drama—friendships wrecked, ex-boyfriends discharged, ice swans shattered, deadly peanut allergies triggered—because how could they not be? All emotions, joyful or otherwise, are heightened at weddings, Doll reminds us. Destination weddings fall in category of their own. They are like some weird, fanciful “love camp,” half a dimension removed from any earthly reality.

And while memoirs not infrequently spark squeamishness in their subjects, memoirs about weddings, where booze is plentiful and social norms suspended, seem doubly treacherous. Doll sent early drafts to the brides she is still on speaking terms with as a warning and a courtesy, letting them fact-check and quibble. “Please do not say that I had potato chips at my rehearsal dinner,” one friend asked.

Which seems fair, because Doll turns her most unsparing lens on herself. This is key to the wedding memoir form: old wounds reopened anew with unflinching precision. Interpersonal missteps are rehashed, drunken antics lamented. At a personal low, she is found, plastered, at a wedding in Connecticut, chucking her platform pumps into a rainstorm in tantrum. Of this blessed union, Doll’s memory is thin.

“Writing a memoir is your own therapy,” she says. “I didn’t need to be getting drunk and yelling at people at every wedding. Writing it is kind of like, Why did you do this?”

Yet the invitations still arrive; the consulting opportunities remain plentiful. “People do ask me a lot about weddings—like, etiquette questions,” she adds. “It’s funny, because my book is not about etiquette. If anything, it might be a warning of what not to do.”

The resulting memoir touches a cultural nerve, ultimately, because it summons, in unsparing detail, a cultural ritual as relentless as it is familiar: you’ve been there! That’s the paradox of Save the Date: Doll is uniquely suited to tell this story, having been to more weddings than you, and yet you are uniquely suited to read it, having attended enough damn nuptials yourself to relate. Surely you’ve been to wedding upon wedding, surely you’ve played the golden child at some, the overboozed prick at others, and surely you’ve been alternately moved and inspired and alienated and nauseated by the storybook ideal of romance these gatherings invariably radiate.

Unless, of course—for reasons of age or culture or whatever—you haven’t traversed the wedding circuit. I haven’t. Not really, at least—no more than I can count on one hand. And how strange it is to read Save the Date from the perspective of your mid-twenties, gazing ahead, not back, at the weddings still to come: who will invite you, who will elope, who will inadvertently reunite you with a high school nemesis on a Caribbean resort (and what then!).

That twinge of mystery, of pieces left to the imagination, is OK. The wedding that casts its strange, long shadow over the bulk of Save the Date is one that Doll did not attend (but still investigates with the probing pen of a family memoirist). That’s her parents’, the vaguely unknowable wedding ceremony that haunts most of our lives. Mine, too, but especially as I read Doll’s memoir. After starting the book, I soon realized my parents’ 25th anniversary was fast approaching; by some cosmic coincidence it would fall the day before Save the Date is out, and what would I get them as a gift?

I considered the dilemma, then dumbly realized the answer was in my hands already. It’s not about you, the book exhorts. Take this opportunity to glance back at your wedding from the other side of the champagne toast.

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