by Tory Henwood Hoen
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: February 8, 2022
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
For fans of Taylor Jenkins Reid, Sally Rooney, and Rebecca Serle, The Arc is a smart, high concept love story that asks: is it possible to optimize our most intimate relationships?
35-year-old Ursula Byrne, VP of Strategic Audacity at a branding agency in Manhattan, is successful, witty, whip-smart, and single. She's tried all the dating apps, and let's just say: she's underwhelmed by her options. You'd think that by now someone would have come up with something more bespoke; a way for users to be more tailored about who and what they want in a life partner--how hard could that be?
Enter The Arc: a highly secretive, super-sophisticated matchmaking service that uses a complex series of emotional, psychological and physiological assessments to architect partnerships that will go the distance. The price tag is high, the promise ambitious--a level of lifelong compatibility that would otherwise be unattainable. In other words, The Arc will find your ideal mate.
Ursula is paired with 42-year-old lawyer Rafael Banks. From moment one, this feels like the electric, lasting love they've each been seeking their whole adult lives. But as their relationship unfolds in unanticipated ways, the two begin to realize that true love is never a sure thing. And the arc of a relationship is never predictable...even when it's fully optimized.
Going in I figured this was not an actual romance novel, and I was right. This is more of a satire with a strong romantic element. While it definitely does an amazing job with the satire part, at times I was confused at to what point exactly the author was trying to make.
“My fertile years are waning, my chance at love has passed, my cat is my greatest asset,” she thought.
There are some absolutely brilliant moments of humor. The book starts out with Ursula in a branding meeting for Indubitably, a toilet paper subscription company, whose founder came up with the idea when he was horrified when he ran out of toilet paper at his bachelor pad. Some of them are more throw-away one-liners, like Ursula mentioning a Silicon Valley watch startup named Bro-lex. There’s also The Stake, the women’s club she and her best friend belong to, attempting to reclaim the image from all the women burned at the stake for being witches. Frankly, yes, it was completely over-the-top (a lavender-scented steam room named Purple Rain that only plays Prince) but honestly, I would probably join if it actually existed!
“I want security, and I want joy. But most of all, I want peace. I’m exhausted. I don’t mind the struggle, but I want to feel confident that I’m on the right path, moving in the right direction, in all aspects of my life.”
If you haven’t figured out from The Stake (which still makes me snort laugh every time I type it), the book tries to grapple with some of the complexities and contradictions of modern feminism, though I’m conflicted about how ultimately successful it is. Ursula frequently comments on how male and rich her coworkers and clients are, and she’s happy to have a younger female coworker that she mentors, though she feels like she’s not doing enough. It’s all compounded by how incredibly WASP-y the book is, and rich cishet WASPs at that. While money was tight in Ursula’s childhood, she still ended up with a full ride to an excellent school, and she has a job where she makes a good amount of money. She’s surrounded by folks who come from wealth, though, and she’s torn between her anti-capitalist upbringing and desire to, well, be rich. She’s good at her job and quite successful, but she doesn’t feel fulfilled by it. That disquieting sense of unhappiness doesn’t stop her from throwing herself at whatever new work challenge comes her way, at the expense of her personal and romantic life. When she stops and contemplates what she really wants, though, it’s that dream of a family and more time leveraging her creative side, rather than finessing the egos of dudebros.
The plot is enjoyable, if a bit uneven in pacing at times. Some things are over belabored (yes, we get that Ursula’s conflicted about everything, can we move on now?). The twist – was it even supposed to be a twist? – is easily guessed by anyone familiar with romance beats. It also feels almost like you’re viewing the characters from a remove. While the initial chapters are from either Ursula’s or Rafael’s third-person (mostly omniscient) points of view, as they become a couple, their viewpoints mix. It’s more like a nature documentary (or mockumentary) observing the mating habits of rich New Yorkers and it made it hard for me to connect with the characters.
While I’m all here for most of the book poking fun at rich white folks, one point that made me comfortable was the story of Rafael’s adoption. He was basically trafficked when he was given to his adoptive parents in Argentina as a six-month-old baby, and it even mentions his new parents using their privilege and connections to get him issued the correct documents through a backchannel. This results in a character who is Latino but raised by rich white folks, which is, well, a choice. Sure, that reflects more on his parents than him, but it didn’t sit right with me.
“I read somewhere that dating in your thirties and forties is just a process of wondering how this amazing person could still be single—and then eventually finding out why.”
The other thing that bothered me was who had to change for their relationship to work. One of Ursula’s biggest fears about a relationship was that she’d have to change herself to meet her partner’s expectations. The book paints her as “weird” for singing to her cat, going out to lunch in a cheetah outfit, and being generally whimsical, all of which seemed quirky but not particularly out there to me. But when push comes to shove and they have their bleak moment, View Spoiler »sure, Rafael jumps to some awful conclusions, but he also has some (honestly pretty good) suggestions for her future. Ursula sees that as controlling, but when everything shakes out? She realizes Rafael was actually right and she’s much happier when she makes those changes. Rafael, on the other hand, has a paragraph or so where he realizes he was cruel and he apologizes. The end. In a supposedly so feminist book, I would’ve expected a bit more growth from both of them instead of “oh yeah, the dude was right.” « Hide Spoiler And while they both have had their past relationship difficulties, it’s very obvious that Ursula has a lot more trauma to work through than Rafael.
Overall, this was a hilarious and enjoyable read, but I finished it not being sure exactly what the point was.