Let me be clear at the outset. Sugar In My Bowl is not a collection of erotica. Although the book includes a few short stories, most of the twenty-nine contributions are essays concerning various aspects of sex. There's also a wonderful theatrical piece (a “triologue”) that reads more like poetry (“Skin, Just Skin,” by Eve Ensler), a pseudo-scientific parody on the influence of sex toys and guides, complete with footnotes (“Best Sex Ever: A Systematic Guide with Meta-Analysis” by Jessica Winter), and a hilarious sequence of drawings about having a clone of oneself, with a cock (“Cock of My Dreams: A Graphic Fantasy” by Marisa Acochella Marchetto). The pieces range from wistful to hysterical, lyrical to analytical, as each author does her best to fulfill the editor's instruction to write about the “best sex you've ever had.”
Despite the subtitle, the contributors to this volume are a highly selected subset of “real women,” mostly writers, often feminists. The roll includes such luminaries as Fay Weldon, Susie Bright, Susan Cheever, Eve Ensler, and Ms. Jong herself. As a result, their offerings tend to be literate, articulate and insightful. Their individual approaches to their “assignment” vary greatly.
In “My Best Friend's Boyfriend,” Fay Weldon, at 79, describes losing her virginity at the age of eighteen and discovering, after a childhood of ignorance and prudishness, how much she loved sex. She notes that in 1949, there was no contraception, no abortion. Sex could destroy your life. As a result, she comments, sex was a dangerous thing, far more interesting and erotic than it is now.
Liz Smith writes about her first time, too, in “Going All the Way.” She evokes the sexist, racist, anti-intellectual attitudes of nineteen thirties Texas, describing one luminous night with her first cousin that was never repeated.
Some of the contributors paint searingly erotic pictures of relationships where passion mingles with darker things: anger, fear, addiction, doubt. “The One Who Breaks My Heart” by Rosemary Daniell chronicles her multi-decade affair with a troubled man who was unquestionably her soul mate, despite his faults. In “Do I Own You Now?” Daphne Merkin describes a summer in her youth, where she was supposed to be working at a prestigious writers' colony but instead was sneaking off to New York City to be with her moody, possessive lover. It couldn't last, of course, that kind of is-this-love-or-is-this-hate entanglement, but I swear it makes my brain smoke just to consider it all these years later.
Many of the women consider their own sexual selves in the context of their parents. Julie Klam, daughter of sexually permissive nudists, titles her piece “Let's Not Talk About Sex.” Now a mother herself, she begs to be relieved of the need to tell her daughter about the facts of life. She writes:
If evil governments are really looking to torture prisoners, they should forget about waterboarding and just have them sit in a room beside their parents having loud sex. I'd talk!
In her more meditative essay, entitled “Somewhere I Have Never Traveled, Gladly,” Meghan O'Rourke discusses the influence of her parents' sexual history on her own. At the age of seventeen, her mother eloped with her twenty two year old Latin teacher from her Catholic school (Meghan's father). Interspersing this romantic yet shocking tale with her own sexual awakening, Ms. O'Rourke contemplates the similarities and differences across the generations.
Perhaps the most pointed generational contrast comes from Molly Jong-Fast, the editor's daughter. Her essay, “They Had Sex So I Didn't Have To,” marvels at the fact that she's married, with three kids and a sexually-conservative, non-experimental life style, despite being the child of the woman notorious for having invented the zipless fuck.
Almost every piece in this book has something to offer. My two favorites, I think, were the very different essays by Jean Hanff Korelitz (“Prude”) and Susan Cheever (“Sex with Strangers”). In some sense these two authors are at opposite poles of the sexual spectrum.
Ms. Korelitz writes about her life-long discomfort talking about sex. Despite being a prude, after having her “serious” novels rejected again and again, she spends her two weeks at a writers' workshop penning a graphic erotic novel. When she publishes it under a pseudonym, this somehow breaks the barrier. She goes on to multiple successful novels, but she can't forget the shameful fact that her first publishing credit was a dirty book.
While I can't begin to identify with her attitudes toward the erotic, I found her insights into the experience of authorship surprisingly congruent with my own. Writing fiction has always been something of an out-of-body experience for me, and it isn't at all unusual for me to read a sentence from one of my published novels and not have the slightest memory of having composed it. That's exactly how I feel, when I reread my work – except that I'm not embarrassed by its content.
Ms. Cheever's essay captures the thrill and occasional transcendence of sex with strangers. One night stands can be spiritual in another way: they can be sex without expectations. They are a leap of faith because you never know quite where they will lead. I know exactly what she's talking about. In her case, a one-night stand turned into a multi-decade, married relationship.
Sugar In My Bowl includes many other notable contributions. While most are not physically arousing (there are a few exceptions), you'll find much to stimulate your intellect and emotions – and occasionally your funny bone. I recommend the book highly.