The Art of Sleeping Alone: Why One French Woman Suddenly Gave Up Sex
By Sophie Fontanel
(Scribner, 160 pages, $22)
When I was handed Sophie Fontanel’s award-winning memoir The Art of Sleeping Alone: Why One French Woman Suddenly Gave Up Sex, I flipped to the first full page of text and looked for a laugh. Here, after all, were portents of sub-Sheryl Sandberg rubbish by the editor of the French Elle, the sort of book that high-powered she-executives read when they are cut off from their email at 10,000 feet. I was expecting equal parts bolt-cutter feminism and cloying sentimentality, tossed with a few sassy self-help tips.
Fontanel may have chosen to spend her middling years sexless, but her memoir is mum on whether everyone else ought to. On page nine she suggests duh-ishly that not having sex if you don’t feel up to it “does a world of good.” Otherwise The Art of Sleeping Alone is pretty standard memoir fare.
Why does Fontanel give up sex? She offers a few explanations, none of which is very satisfactory. Putting on my Freudian hat, I think it boils down to a general dislike of human beings. Fontanel seems less enchanted with the “why” of her celibacy than with its results. She reports her sexless face relaxing, her sexless backbone straightening, her sexless skin “radiant with newfound freedom” (whatever that means). “I was confident,” she tells us. “I rejoiced at being out of all danger. They weren’t going to get me. They weren’t going to get anything from me.” Unless, of course, “they” buy her short book for $22.00.
The memoir begins on the cusp of Fontanel’s sex furlough, a vacation at an off-season ski lodge. She is exhilarated by the isolation: “I thought it was delightful to be far from other people. And to sing about longing only for the horizon. To have the creaking snows for my sole companion….I was through with being had.” Back in Paris she breaks it off with her lover. Seeing her new “brightness,” he assumes she has fallen in love with someone else, but Fontanel insists that she was really “leaving everything for the girl I’d been years before…an adolescent bursting with impatience, eager to undergo a confirmation quite unlike that dull one in church.” (This is only one of the many references in this book to Fontanel’s jaded anti-clericalism, which is very French and very boring.)
The ex-boyfriend isn’t the first to misunderstand what’s going on in Fontanel’s head. If one were to break down this book’s themes into a color-coded pie chart, the Pac-Man-shaped mega-slice would be titled “No One is Quite Like Me.” She is certainly an odd duck. Watching a television program about dog handling with her first serious boyfriend, Fontanel realizes (decides?) that she is a female Dalmatian: “There seemed no explanation for why such a young and lovely creature would hate human beings… I’d realized that that female was me.” Later she lashes out at a well-meaning florist who dares to add complimentary foliage to her six bunches of poppies. “From now on I was saying what I didn't want.”
For my money, the funniest bit in this memoir comes when a Hungarian career woman on the European Council makes a speech to Fontanel over coffee about how she is fed up with men. “‘I’m just like you,’” she tells Fontanel, who, initially confused, is soon given quite a shock: “I saw her scarlet mouth zoom toward my lips. I instinctively protected my face.” She discusses this incident with her friend, mentor, and fellow abstainer Axcel, who can’t understand why Fontanel won’t give women a shot: “‘I’m truly sorry, in this city abounding in women, that you can’t desire a single one of them.’”
Unlike her closest friends, we, her readers, are all too aware of Fontanel’s longings. The Art of Sleeping Alone is chock full of sensuous imaginings. At night she holds her pillow as if it were a man. “He moved slowly….It took me some time to understand that he was rocking me….It was happiness.” Alone at the movies she fantasizes about leathery Sundance creepmeister Robert Redford. Likening herself to a field poppy that needs little water to bloom (always one for the weird analogies, Fontanel), she relishes in her unique ability to accept and be satisfied by the nourishment provided by Redford’s screen essence. “Disembodied, the both of us, we were resurrected in the heavenly precincts of the Lucernaire. Redford could have carried me off in the folds of his craggy complexion.” While she admits that she would be “frightened” if the real Redford approached her (and who wouldn’t be?), she finds these visions enticing because they are hers. As Axcel puts it, “everything we scatter is lost.”
One suspects that very few readers will find themselves drawn to Fontanel’s way of life (though a few upper-middle-class lionesses priming their claws for the corporate world, but lacking meow in the sack, may bite). Still, there are times when all of us will sympathize: Fontanel’s version of self-sufficiency sure looks comfy by comparison with the chaos of intimacy.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Things are only as complicated as we make them, and Fontanel likes them complicated. Almost 10 years celibate, Fontanel suddenly develops a crush while at a dinner party. After an evening of flirtation she and the man leave the party together. He attempts to caress her on the street. Fontanel panics and pushes him into a chestnut tree. “No one could have done anything at all that night to quiet that despair going crazy in my heart. I loved no one.” The next day she contemplates suicide. “I realized the physical life is something that someone else gives you.”
Shouldn’t this have been a turning point? Instead Fontanel takes all of her books and throws them away. “I had found my refuge: a jail….I wasn’t lying to myself anymore with literature.” What a dramatic flourish! But I don’t see honesty here: just another crazed woman on the warpath to control, old hat for our sex. For women, self-denial will never go out of style, though a few spins on the menstrual cycle should have taught us that emotions don’t always match up neatly with reality.
No surprise ending here. We all know Fontanel is going to slip into the sheets with someone. I suspected it would be a one-night stand—a father of two met on a plane from Bombay? Instead, she ends up with the husband of a long-time friend, a man ostracized by his family due to his pornography addiction.
There is a lot to unpack here, but as I closed in on the last three pages, I was so exhausted by this drama queen that I really didn’t care whom she opened her legs for.