Book Review: I Am My Beloveds

Updated: Jan 3

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