Full disclosure: I received a free ARC of I’m Coming from House of Anansi Press. In fact, this book came with a tiny promotional package:
Yeah, that’s a small package of vaginal lubricant and two AA batteries—presumably to, you know, power Mr Rabbit, or whatever shape one’s vibrator takes.
Fortunately, one of my friends—who would actually have a use for such items—saw me tweet about this and volunteered to take them off my hands. I wasn’t about to ask!
So as this clever marketing strategy implies, I’m not in the expected audience for this book. And despite my penchant for wide reading, I’ll be honest: I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book myself. That being said, it’s kind of my cup of tea in some ways, and I definitely enjoyed it.
Here’s the skinny: Julie has never had an orgasm despite having multiple sexual partners, three children, and a devoted husband. So she buys a vibrator with a 30-day money-back orgasm guarantee and locks herself in her bedroom. But when she attempts to climax, she inevitably distracts herself with flashbacks and ruminations.
The very first page encapsulates the promise I’m Coming holds: when Julie tells her husband (known only as “A”) that she has been faking every orgasm, he’s crushed: “the first thing he had to be reassured of was that there was nothing wrong with him.” I see this attitude from well-meaning allies online—even while trying to be supportive, lots of men (myself included) seek reassurance that we personally are “off the hook” for sexist or misogynist behaviour. And as the chapter goes on, Selma Lønning Aarø quickly runs down some of the most significant issues that women face: body image, the pressure to be a “good” mother, conflicting attitudes towards sex across gender and generational lives.
See, I’m neither a woman nor all that interested in sex on a personal level. And for those reasons, it’s all the better that I’m reading a book like this. After all, how else am I supposed to understand people who have these different perspectives unless I expose myself to their thoughts and feelings? So I appreciate the perspective that Aarø gives me.
And of course, on a wider level, our society is just obsessed with sex. This novel is timely, because this was the summer of the “female Viagra” pill. The big question: does this pill empower women to “take control” of their sexual arousal, or does it transform lack of arousal into a medical condition? You can read more about this debate in Sady Doyle’s fantastic write-up for The Guardian.
But at the heart of it, and at the heart of I’m Coming, is a simple fact: the double standard. Men are expected, encouraged to have sex and to have multiple sex partners. When it comes to women, the story is a bit different, because expectations for them have changed a little. Time was, women were expected not to have independent sexual desire—they were objects for sex. Now the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, and under the guise of empowerment and the sexual revolution, women are expected to be more forward, more comfortable with their sexuality. As Aarø has Julie put it in the first sentence of this book: “For a long time, my husband thought I was a horny bitch.”
Therein the double standard then, and I know I don’t have to explain it to women reading this (or even to most men). So I’ll just say that Aarø does a great job emphasizing how this affects women like Julie, who might want an orgasm but who have managed to get through life quite fine without one. The story’s structure, which alternates between Julie’s masturbation sessions and the flashbacks to different lovers or other significant events, can be frustrating. Then again, I imagine that’s the intention: the frustration and tension we feel parallels Julie’s own frustration.
Julie herself is not entirely likeable. She’s sometimes abrasive and not always charitable in her opinions of others, particularly women. Also, keep in mind that this book is entirely from her perspective, so there’s an unreliable narrator dimension to everything: maybe she’s super-crazy and unbalanced and everyone else is just barely tolerating her.
Whatever the case, even though I didn’t like Julie, I could feel sympathy for her and wanted some sort of resolution. Without spoiling it: I loved the ending more than I expected. It’s … appropriate, and well done. Aarø could have taken it in a few other directions, but I don’t think any of them would have had the same impact as what she ultimately does.
In some ways I’m Coming reminds me of a play. In its present length, and with the way Aarø has structured it, there is an act/scene feeling to it. I’m not quite sure how an actor would portray Julie’s alone-time on stage without it seeming super corny. But that’s the director’s problem, not mine!
If I’m Coming has any shortcomings, it’s that the humour is not quite what the outside packaging advertises. Kari Dickson has done a great job translating this from Norwegian: everything reads smoothly, and the humour comes across. But it’s a drier humour than the cover copy implies, at least to me: this isn’t one of those hilarious “chick flick” style movies like Bridesmaids that expect laughter from the audience. It actually reminds me more of what Love Actually does with some of its storylines: that movie, overall, is very humourous—but there’s a lot of disappointment scattered across its various stories. This book is much the same, with the humour coming from the setbacks and almost pedestrian stopping Julie from climaxing.
Let me be clear, though, that I don’t view this discrepancy as bad. I think that if it were more overtly humourous, then it would lose some of its depth, and I wouldn’t find it as approachable. I appreciate how Aarǿ seems to be writing for a much wider audience than the packaging might indicate. While other women—and perhaps frustrated women—are logically the core audience, there is nothing insular about this book. I was pretty sure, going into it, that I would enjoy it.
The whole idea of chick flicks and chick lit just irks me so much. It’s not that I want to take away safe spaces for women to write about women’s issues—but it’s unfortunate that in creating those spaces we also ghettoize them, as we have done with science fiction and fantasy at times. It is just as important for men to read novels about women’s issues.
So if you’re male and reading this review, that’s my challenge to you. You don’t necessarily have to read I’m Coming, but let’s expend your reading repertoire if you haven’t already. Let’s break some genre and gender expectations here.
And on a more general note, if anyone else would like to send me free books, you are more than welcome to! However, I will pass on free sex stuff, marketing or otherwise.