Balakian #3: She took a year off from her marriage to sleep with strangers. What could go wrong?

By Carlos Lozada

This year's Nona Balakian award for Excellence in Reviewing went to Carlos Lozada for his submission of three reviews from The Washington Post. “She took a year off from her marriage to sleep with strangers. What could go wrong?” was the third. (The review also appeared in the print edition of the Sunday Washington Post, March 15, 2015, under the headline “Fifty Shades of Eat, Pray, Love.”) Reprinted here with permission of The Washington Post.


Get ready for “The Wild Oats Project.” And not just the book. Get ready for “The Wild Oats Project” phenomenon — the debates, the think pieces, the imitators and probably the movie. Get ready for orgasmic meditation and the Three Rules. Get ready for “My Clitoris Deals Solely in Truth” T-shirts.

Robin Rinaldi, a magazine journalist living in San Francisco by way of Scranton, Pa., initially wasn’t sure she wanted children, but she knew that Scott, her stoic Midwestern husband, did not. Over time, Rinaldi decided a baby would add purpose to their lives, but Scott wouldn’t change his mind. “I wanted a child, but only with him,” she explains. “He didn’t want a child but wanted to keep me.” When Scott opted for a vasectomy, she demanded an open marriage.

“I refuse to go to my grave with no children and only four lovers,” she declares. “If I can’t have one, I must have the other.”

If you’re wondering why that is the relevant trade-off, stop overthinking this. “The Wild Oats Project” is the year-long tale of how a self-described “good girl” in her early 40s moves out, posts a personal ad “seeking single men age 35-50 to help me explore my sexuality,” sleeps with roughly a dozen friends and strangers, and joins a sex commune, all from Monday to Friday, only to rejoin Scott on weekends so they can, you know, work on their marriage.

The arrangement is unorthodox enough to succeed as a story, and in Rinaldi’s telling it unfolds as a sexual-awakening romp wrapped in a female-empowerment narrative, a sort of Fifty Shades of Eat, Pray, Love. “I wanted to tell him to f— me hard but I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth” is a typical Rinaldi dilemma. At the same time, she constantly searches for “feminine energy” or her “feminine core” or for a “spiritual practice guided by the feminine.”

But more than empowering or arousing, this story is depressing. Rinaldi just seems lost. Still sorting through the psychological debris of an abusive childhood, she latches on to whatever guru or beliefs she encounters, and imagines fulfillment with each new guy. She still rushes to Scott whenever things gets scary (a car accident, an angry text message), yet deliberately strains their union beyond recovery. “At any cost” are the operative words of the subtitle.

Robin and Scott agree to three rules — “no serious involvements, no unsafe sex, no sleeping with mutual friends” — that both go on to break. He finds a steady girlfriend, while Robin violates two rules right away. “In truth, I was sick of protecting things,” she writes about going condom-free with a colleague at a conference. “I wanted the joy of being overcome.”

The men and women she hooks up with — some whose names Rinaldi has changed, others too fleeting to merit aliases — all blur into a new-age, Bay Area cliche. Everyone is a healer, or a mystic, or a doctoral student in feminist or Eastern spirituality. They’re all verging on enlightenment, sensing mutual energy, getting copious action to the sounds of tribal drums. The project peaks when she moves into OneTaste, an urban commune where “expert researchers” methodically stroke rows of bare women for 15 minutes at a time in orgasmic meditation sessions (“OM” to those in the know). “Everyone here was passionate,” Rinaldi writes. “Everyone had abandoned convention.”

But they are all so uniform in their unconventionality that it’s hard to keep everyone straight. This book needs an org chart.

Rinaldi holds little back, detailing her body’s reactions along the way. At first she is upset that she can’t feel pleasure as quickly as other women, but she finally decides she’s glad that her “surrender didn’t happen easily, that it lay buried and tethered to the realities of each relationship.” Her clitoris, although “moody,” was also “an astute barometer. . . . It dealt solely in truth.”

And truth often comes in tacky dialogue. “Your breasts are amazing,” one of her younger partners tells her. “You should have seen them in my twenties,” Rinaldi boasts. His comeback: “You’re cocky. I dig that.” (Fade to dirty talk.) When they do it again months later, he thanks her in the morning. “Something happens when I’m with you,” he says. “I feel healed.” I’m sure that’s exactly what he feels.

Rinaldi can’t seem to decide why she’s doing all this. The project is her “rebellion.” Or “a search for fresh, viable sperm.” Or a “bargaining chip.” Or “an elaborate attempt to dismantle the chains of love.” Or just a “quasi-adolescent quest for god knows what.”

If exasperation could give you orgasms, this book would leave me a deeply satisfied reader.

One of her oldest friends calls her out. “How is sleeping with a lot of guys going to make you feel better about not having kids?” she asks. Rinaldi’s answer: “Sleeping with a lot of guys is going to make me feel better on my deathbed. I’m going to feel like I lived, like I didn’t spend my life in a box. If I had kids and grandkids around my deathbed, I wouldn’t need that. Kids are proof that you’ve lived.” It’s a bleak and disheartening rationale, as though women’s lives can achieve meaning only through motherhood or sex.

For all her preoccupation with feminine energy, Rinaldi seems conflicted over feminism. “I would die a feminist,” she writes of her collegiate activism, “but I was long overdue for some fun.” Later, she pictures women’s studies scholars judging her submission fantasies, and frets over “those Afghan women hidden under their burqas” who could be “beaten or even killed right now for doing what I was so casually doing.” But when she finds a sexual connection with a woman who backs away because of “emotional issues,” Rinaldi channels her inner alpha male: “I was drawn to her body but shrunk back when she expressed unfettered feeling. . . .  It only took sleeping with one woman to help me understand the behavior of nearly every man I’d ever known.”

When the year runs out, Rinaldi returns to Scott, even though she soon starts an affair with a project flame. She’s no longer so upset about the vasectomy, regarding it as a sign that Scott can stand up for himself (though it may also mean she now cares less about him, period). No shock that post-project, their chemistry is off, and when Rinaldi makes a casual reference to their time apart, Scott finally explodes. “Do you know how many nights I cried myself to sleep when you moved out!?” he asks. “Do you care about anyone’s feelings but your own!?” She was “too stunned to reply.” But the fate of this marriage, revealed in the final pages, is anything but stunning.

“These are the sins against my husband,” Rinaldi recounts. “Abdicating responsibility, failing to empathize with him, cheating and lying.” After blaming him for so long, “in the end, I was the one who needed to ask forgiveness.”

In a rare moment of heartbreaking subtlety, the book’s dedication page simply says “For Ruby,” the name Rinaldi had imagined for a baby girl. Except, “there is no baby,” she writes at the end. “Instead there is the book you hold in your hands.”

And that is a frustrating book, with awkward prose, a perplexing protagonist and too many eye-rolling moments. Yet it is also a book I see launching book-club conversations and plenty of pillow talk — not just about sex and marriage, but about the price and possibility of self-reinvention. You don’t have to write a great work to cause a great stir.

Does Rinaldi reinvent herself? She survives the aftershocks and even seems to discover some happiness, however fragile she knows it to be. So maybe she needed this after all. Or maybe sometimes “empowerment” is just another word for self-absorption.

Carlos Lozada is associate editor and nonfiction book critic of The Washington Post.