I get it. Discovering who we are, what we love and transcending our crappy upbringings (or just escaping them) can be an arduous journey fraught with difficult trials and disastrous errors. We’re inculcated with our parent’s values, unfulfilled desires and bad behavior from our earliest memories. What Mom tells us we are is what we believe, and for many of us, me included, how she defined us was totally disconnected to what we knew to be true—deep down in our pure hearts.
Growing up wasn’t a smooth ride, and I longed to be able to strike out on my own (on Dad’s dime, of course) and become my true self. This true self involved a handsome prince who would rescue me from my lowly status of “difficult child” and restore me to my rightful place as Queen of the manor. All I need to do was learn the piano, learn tap and ballet, get straight As, speak French, demonstrate debutante manners and gracious hosting (physician husbands expected a wife who could entertain) be kind, sweet, chaste, God fearing, and compliant. Oh, and I was expected to also become a June Cleaver level housewife, cheerfully vacuuming the house in pearls and heels with my hair perfectly coiffed while a gourmet meal baked in the oven and hubby’s shirts lined up, starched and wrinkle free in the closet. I hated ironing and this was the Summer of Love. Who the hell coiffed their hair? Needless to say, tensions escalated at home and I couldn’t wait to get out.
“Go to college and find a husband. Learn how to do something practical in case you ever have to support yourself,” was my father’s advice. I loved school, it was an easy out, but the husband part was more difficult. Having been directed in all my decisions from birth, even in which gloves to wear to shopping in San Francisco, I lacked skill in making good ones. Add the fact I had no idea who I was or what I loved beyond Beat poetry, fairytales and fiction, I made horrendous choices in potential husbands. Unfortunately for me, my dating bender lasted until I turned fifty.
Samantha Serrano, adult daughter of good Catholic alcoholics, flees her dysfunctional family into a marriage that’s all wrong for her in The Dating Bender. It’s not that Sheldon is a bad guy, he’s just too busy building his career to be a husband and Samantha is too immature to do anything but run away, her patterned response. This time she runs to the world of high tech start-ups where her sex-pot friend Babs goads her into crazy, risky behavior and she starts a new affair with a despicable, nerdy and brilliant coworker that is a train wreck in the making. Things are not improved with the arrival of Sheldon and all of their worldly possessions rescued from the marriage. Samantha in typical response flees, the marriage over and the start-up job a bust. She goes home to Mom and Dad who are drunker, more critical and impose more expectations than ever.
Samantha doesn’t last long at home. She hops a Greyhound for New Your City and falls into one relationship after the next as she suffers her irrational and demanding boss’s insane demands until she can’t take it anymore. Leaving a string of failures, she flies to Rome for a “power-confession’ at the Vatican. She ends up at the Trevi fountain to toss coins into the water and cry. Her wallet goes missing, her ex-husband has appeared, and although a handsome Lothario is making love to her over espresso, she has an epiphany.
In Samantha’s words, I paced around my hotel room and obsessed over the facts. I had been married, divorced, fired, disowned, and almost excommunicated by a meddling nun.. . . Now it was all about my come-to-Jesus meeting with Sheldon, fitting considering my proximity to the religious capitol of the world. She keeps her lunch date with Sheldon and through their interaction comes to understand she’s not a bad person, but a normal woman who had fought hard to break away from her family’s vision of her and finally won. Samantha has forgiven herself, her parents and Sheldon. She’s free to finally live her life.
Throughout all the trials and tribulations of her own marriage, separation and divorce, Sam maintains a snarky wit, often making fun of herself. She appears to thrive on drama and is a popular culture junkie—reading every self-help article in every woman’s magazine. She constantly compares real life to the information in the articles through humorous observations, as she slowly grows from immaturity, naïve denial, fear and overwhelm to the contentment of knowing who she is and what she wants.
Although at times I wanted to grab Sam and shake her for her blind, helpless attitudes and behaviors, especially all the vomiting, I found her lesson to be similar to my own, and often much funnier. Author Christina Julian demonstrates the makings of a fine contemporary humorist in her first Rom-com. Her writing occasionally goes over-the-top with the boozy “wah-wah” of Sam’s pathetic life, but is redeemed in its modern wit, sarcastic humor, fast-pace and detail laden prose. The Dating Bender’s plot is rich in disaster and soul searching, and Samantha is a complex character with a wide range of emotions and behaviors that attest to Julian’s powers of observation and empathy. I like how she’s put it all together to lead readers through the arc of growing out of dysfunction into a satisfying conclusion of acceptance, forgiveness, and redemption.
I’m certain that Samantha Serrano is going to be a beacon for thousands of young women trying to balance their upbringings, their families, their work and their notions of God to create for themselves a healthy life, living free of outmoded thought, dogma and stress. Happiness? I hope everyone finds it, but sometimes the process of finding it is what’s compelling. The journey to master herself in a changing world (with dramatic style) and find peace and love is what draws us to Samantha. My heart went out to her as along the way she made so many of the mistakes I made. Samantha shows me that no matter how awful and wrong our origins, we can’t run away, but we can prevail in finding ourselves and establishing the life we should have. Weeks after reading The Dating Bender, Samantha Serrano still haunts me.
Here’s a hearty congratulation to debut novelist Christina Julian on Launch Day! May you delight us with many more to come.