There's not much new in "Perfect Husbands (& Other Fairy Tales)," but Regina Barreca presents a medley of home truths and horse sense -- even snappily worded echoes of "The Prophet" -- in such an engaging way that the reader is likely not to care.
Dr. Barreca, author of "They Used To Call Me Snow White, But . . . I Drifted" and a professor of English and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut, blends humorous anecdote and straight sociological data in just the right mix, thereby entertaining and instructing (or reinforcing) at the same time.
"Perfect Husbands" is not an "it's all his fault" feminist tract. It is in part an attempt to answer Virginia Woolf's question of over 70 years ago -- why are women, judging from the library catalog, so much more interesting to men than men are to women? (This still seems to be the case.) It also tries to answer the question: Who has the better (or worse) deal? and presents typical situations and points of view of both genders that are often at odds and cause arguments and hard feelings.
Dr. Barreca's conclusion is that both genders are being exploited by each other in different ways at different times. She doesn't tally it up, but her stories and harder data show that the sexes come out evenly in advantages and disadvantages in their eternal battle.
For example, Sunday for the man is too much the day of being on call emotionally; indeed, Sunday seems to "reflect much larger issues of men's discontent with their role in a marriage." On the other hand, women see men as remaining distant to prove their masculinity; men also trivialize the feminine and impose authoritarian values on their relationships with women.
Dr. Barreca recites a long list of inequities as perceived by both sides. Cultural conditioning for centuries has identified the female by her marital status, from the salutation Mrs. to Bride (but no Groom) magazine, and with harsh penalties (even today) if she's active sexually. Men think of marriage as a straitjacket; the very words "commitment" and "marriage" conjure up rules and restricted and uniform behavior.
Yet statistics show that men are happier than women in marriage. It is indeed an age-old mess, compounded by romantic illusions about each other and about romance itself. A French philosopher (unnamed) sums up a large part of the problem: "If no one had learned to read, very few people would be in love."
The author describes certain types who cause pain -- the cad, and conversely, the women who love cads; a man who needs to marry a "trophy" wife after discarding the same-age woman who raised his children; and the primal impact of the male's paycheck on a couple's perception of their financial situation. Happily, though, she has some solutions.
She suggests "an honest exchange of emotional information, without guilt or shame," and she stresses the significance of a woman's earning her own money: "it's better to marry a man who will be your soul support rather than your sole support."
In so doing, the man is released somewhat from the generations-old onus of being valued only for his ability to earn well. These are some steps toward a healthy journey from romance to reality.
I have a couple of quibbles. Ms. Barreca never clearly answers Virginia Woolf's question about the preponderance of men's writing about women vs. the dearth of women's writing about men. Also, the book has at least a dozen typos; such sloppiness is distracting.
Ann Egerton is a writer who lives in Baltimore.
Title: "Perfect Husbands (& Other Fairy Tales)"
Author: Regina Barreca
Publisher: Harmony Books
Length, price: 256 pages, $20