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Book Review: I Am My Beloveds

Updated: Jan 3, 2022

When I was asked if I’d consider reading and reviewing Jonathan Papernick’s upcoming novel I Am My Beloveds, it seemed like a great fit with my current plan to consume more fiction with polyamorous representation (and my 2021 goal to read more- I passed my “read 50 books” goal in July but I’m trying to keep momentum up through the year-end). This book, which comes out in early 2022, follows Ben Seidel, an architect from Boston, as he and his wife Shira open their marriage to other relationships, and covers a couple very eventful years following that. I’m going to address my feelings about this novel in a couple of parts - about the novel itself, and about the polyamory/consensual non monogamy representation within it - and I’ll try to very clearly mark which section you should scroll by if you don’t want spoilers (I’ll put it between two images of the book, here, my very nice ARC of I Am My Beloveds posed on my coffee table).

Without spoiling anything, I can say that if I did not consider the polyamory representation at all, and were, say, giving an off-the-cuff review on my TikTok to my BookTok buddies, I’d give this book 4 of 5 stars. I enjoyed it, I’d recommend someone read it, but I probably won’t be rereading and returning to it repeatedly. It starts slowly and with an awkward first-chapter device that I wish the author & his editor had cut or made a prologue or something, but by about a third of the way through it picks up and becomes very page-turning and engaging, and from there I couldn’t put it down. You really go through a journey with the protagonist that felt to me like a very honest examination of the ways our patriarchal society (& its attendant toxic masculinity) fails men - and with the uptick in pace you start getting details that redeem the unlikable and hard to relate to guy of the first couple chapters into someone you really root for even if you don’t agree with his choices. You get just enough of the secondary characters to want more of them - part of why it’s 4 stars, not 5, is that the female characters all feel like they could be fleshed out further, and sometimes it feels like tangents of story that are hinted at are more interesting than the main plot we’re following.

To address the polyamory representation without spoiling plot, there were moments that felt very real and relatable but they were fleeting, and I was disappointed that the overall plot held polyamory centrally but saw it as disposable. (I will explain that better with spoilers later, but that’s about what I can give you without plot points.) It is really refreshing to read a book with polyamorous representation that is neither thinly disguised smut nor science fiction, so the whole book had that going for it regardless of whether I liked how the plot overall was handled, but the main characters overall grappling with cultural, religious and patriarchal ideas of what their marriage should be didn’t move as far as most polyamorous people I know do in their journeys in the first couple years. If you struggled a lot with religious ideals of what marriage should be as you opened a relationship, you may find Ben’s struggles in the novel very relatable. The relationships engaged in generally leaned hard on tropes and I struggled with that a little (there’s a manic poly dream girl, I feel like that’s not even a spoiler), but the writing is tight and in that last two thirds of the book where the pacing is good you forgive a lot as you’re going.

Considering all of this, and that the way the plot handled the extramarital polyamorous relationships sat badly with me, it deflated my enjoyment a little. I’d still recommend this book if you like well-paced romances, if you’re particularly into Jewish literature (because there’s lots of rich detail on that front), if you opened up your relationship while living in Boston and want to relive that setting while feeling slightly superior about how well you did at it, or if you want an interesting examination of the emotional loneliness of middle-aged men in our society. If you’re looking for representation that shows great polyamorous growth that you can give your mono relatives to open them up to the idea, this is NOT IT. Details on which tropes were used and what moments were well-handled and relatable or badly handled are in the next section, but they do come with spoilers.

Here’s where things get spoiler-heavy, because I want to tell you about the parts of this book that really work and really don’t. Chapter 1 is essentially Ben being surprised that he finds his wife particularly attractive tonight, and then hurt that she’s going out with someone else and acting on what he thought had been a theoretical discussion of opening up their relationship. We never hear that conversation, or most other conversations about changes in their relationship - and while some of that is because of the deliberate actions of the characters to hide information from each other, some of it is the author hiding hard conversations (maybe because he thinks we’ll find them boring?). I would have traded pages of defensive conversation about opening up for Ben’s internal monologue about how Shira doesn’t dress up for him. Chapter 2 cuts immediately to “One year later” and Ben having had no relationship success and limited dating success and actively objectifying his wife and her female partner for most of the chapter. I found the opening frankly kind of gross and unlikable and it took a good number of chapters for the characters of both Ben and Shira (who is demanding and evasive throughout the first third of the book) to “recover” through the action of the story. I know the feeling of resenting your partner’s greater dating success is very real - I’ve experienced it on occasion - but I wish we’d dropped into our story somewhere else because it made the characters harder to like.

Ben’s struggles to come to terms with the terms of their relationship, the married couple’s lack of communication around the topic, and his sudden joy (although not peace) when he’s involved with a woman called Pamela for a large chunk of the story, are all relatable. The sheer amount of fetishization of his wife’s queer relationship and her girlfriend (who he only meets about halfway through the novel, and so is not just a manic poly dream girl stereotype, but is a quasi-pornographic object of envy in his mental narrative) and the repeated and pretty petulant whining about how rare and mechanical their sex life is when the frequency sounds very common is just incredibly off-putting, and made me spend about a third of the book texting my male friends asking if this is really how men think and whether I should just stop dating men. I recognize that in any book where we’ve got a lot of point of view we’ve got to filter for that, but it left a bad taste in my mouth until he managed to get into a relationship. For folks who had a similar experience, where they had trouble settling into non-monogamy or a lot of conflict until both partners were successfully dating or partnered, and who are better at filtering their emotional experience while reading (or who aren’t kinky bi women who felt horrified that this is what we’re still saying is the common thing folks should think about dating us) it might resonate really well - as I said above, it’s well-written and evocative.

There are two sort of central plot lines. The first is Ben’s relationship with Shira and meeting Shira’s partner from Chapter 1 onward, Liz, a polyamorous, kinky, tattooed bisexual woman who is portrayed as bright, funny, a little younger than Ben & Shira, and living in a cheaper neighborhood, but sticking to her convictions constantly and not afraid to tell it like it is, and how Liz’s relationship with Shira, and Shira’s quiet long term planning with Liz without Ben affects him. One of the central points of the plot is that Shira has suffered from cancer and can no longer have children, before our story begins, so Liz offers to be a surrogate for them. Throughout the entirety of this section of the plot, I wished either that this was the novel about Ben and Shira coping with the actual trying and failing to have a kid and the cancer diagnosis that kept getting alluded to, OR a novel from the point of view of one of the women in the book, because it’s hard to read that many sentences that include “empty womb” written by a man and not feel bad about it, as a woman and a mother.

However, this plot gives us the best polyamory moments of the whole book. First, Ben’s nervousness to meet his metamour, which Shira has apparently been asking him to do for ages, although we never see any of their challenging conversations about any of this (which is my pet peeve about the polyam representation in this book - as we all know from practicing it, most of polyamory is talking things out, and a conversation can be a way to move a plot forward, so how much would it hurt to give us a couple of these conversations sprinkled in instead of having the guy think how many times he’s refused?) is on point. The surrogacy conversation itself is not a great polyamory-processing-conversation, but it’s a GREAT “I just wanted the thing so I made the plan without you, this is the plan, can’t you be excited for me?” Conversation, and I think every one of us reading this blog has had an argument coming from one of those conversations. (So do Ben and Shira, though they get on a team.) Ben’s eventual metamour relationship with Liz, and the ways it’s tentative but friendly, felt very realistic to me, despite the slightly wild plot, and the moments where the plot got out of control the human relationships feeling real was helpful to the book as a whole. Ben gets to be legitimately likable when he supports Liz after her being their surrogate doesn’t pan out and she and Shira end up breaking up because Shira can’t handle it. Earlier on, this plot includes them bringing Liz along to try to come out to Shira’s parents (the only living and still in contact parents) and it’s a well-done coming out scene, complete with freakout and “But won’t you be a supportive parent?” counter-guilt-trip.

The other big storyline is Ben’s relationship with Pamela, a woman he meets at an art gallery after a year and a bit of unsuccessful attempts to date online. They have a beautifully NRE-filled whirlwind romance, but she wants more and they break up the first time because she’s monogamous and wants him to leave Shira for her. He seriously considers it for a minute but decides he can’t and won’t. The entire relationship is part of what makes this book a good book, a good examination of non-monogamy, but not actually great polyamory representation - Ben essentially sees all his external interactions as reflections of his relationship with Shira and has no problem ‘not picking’ Pamela, not because she’s asking him to choose but because (as he reflects in virtually every scene that she’s emotionally vulnerable) he’s only emotionally vulnerable with Shira and Shira is his only emotional support in the world. Ben and Pamela end up back together briefly (and back off again explosively) because it turns out that she is pregnant and they have to figure out what to do about that. As someone whose eldest kid was born in a polyam relationship from a pregnancy “with the wrong partner” parts of this storyline were relatable content (although Pamela constantly demanding monogamy wasn’t) and once Ben made up his mind about what he was doing, this storyline was moving and satisfying, if a little sad and also a reminder of why we personalize our pregnancy and STI risk profiles.

The downfall of the polyam representation this novel is not in the relationships with Liz and Pamela but in that it feels like both Ben and Shira are waiting for one thing to go wrong to go “Ok, monogamy again?” And it just takes some time for them to be doing it at the same time, as opposed to at different moments. It’s not that Ben is going to find another girlfriend or a relationship with Liz, now; and when Shira and Liz have a third-act breakup Shira decides that it’s all polyamory’s fault and not that I found that to be a really disappointing take on “open relationships,” that they were a phase that would be over as soon as each of you had seen who one other person was and that the answer was “not your spouse.” But what do I know? I’m polyamorous and not planning to remarry.

If you were avoiding spoilers, you're in the safe zone again.

To sum up, I’d say I Am My Beloveds is an enjoyable read once you get past the first few chapters, and if you have less of a squick-out factor to cishet men sexualizing their partners’ relationships than I do, you might even like it from the very beginning. The writing is rich with vivid detail and emotional honesty. The storylines feature detailed struggles of a couple years of an open marriage, and if you’re looking for a moving book about emotional struggle and a couple coming closer through emotional challenges, it’s good for that. It's very nice to read a book set in the present and the real world that isn't barely-veiled smut that has polyamory as the central theme - where there's some "there there" - to respond to my own complaints on social media about the last couple of polyam-centric books I read. It's four stars out of five, I'd recommend it. If you’re looking for “Oh, some representation that my relative who reads a lot might get what polyamory is after”…preread and decide for yourself, because it’s heavy on the struggles, and I think I'd want an audience who's already got a positive impression for this one. If you're looking to pick up a copy, it's in pre-orders on Amazon now, with the release date in March.

This review was sponsored, meaning I was paid to read the book and provide a fair and honest review. All words and views are, as always, mine.

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08 мая

I recently discovered LU St Sauveur biscuits on Europafoodxb while searching for something simple yet sophisticated to serve at my book club. These plain biscuits were the perfect choice, elegant and understated, pairing beautifully with both cheese and wine. Their delicate texture and subtle flavor enhanced our evening discussions, and their quick arrival meant one less thing to worry about in my preparations.

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