Saturday Read: Chastened, by Hephzibah Anderson
At first glance, the plump peach and the virginal white background on the cover of Hephzibah Anderson’s first book Chastened: The Unexpected Story of My Year Without Sex gives the impression that this memoir will be a succulent read. In fact, since the story is about Anderson’s sexual self, it’s hard not to assume this would be one juicy story. However, in its 264 pages, Anderson leaves her audience dry with a less than tantalizing first memoir.
Close to her 30th birthday, Anderson sees her ex-boyfriend from college (who she clearly had deep feelings for) walking hand-in-hand into De Beers with his then girlfriend, resulting in their engagement. This incident sparks her year-long contract with herself to remain sexually sober. Why? Because through the shock of her ex-beau’s engagement, Anderson realizes that after years and years of sex: “I’d had enough sex without love; maybe it was time to look for love without sex?”
While the concept for her sexual journey – questioning casual sex in today’s society – seems well-rooted, the delivery of this twelve month personal discovery falls flat. Flirting around topics, Anderson doesn’t really dive into anything; instead she chooses to dance from one thing to another in each chapter. For example, in the chapter “September or Dressing Around,” Anderson embarks on a less-sexualized wardrobe – so she buys a turtleneck. Instead of defining what new clothes will add to her year without sex, Anderson uses the chapter to discuss everything from shopping with boyfriends, high school fashion choices, and femininity. If all of these topics rolled into each other and told the story like it should be told, they wouldn’t seem out of place, but since they are strewn together – the story of her buying a turtleneck gets lost in the midst of everything else.
The entire novel falters at exploring anything too closely. It’s as if Anderson, who has since resumed having sex after the 12 months, didn’t really learn anything. Instead, she just decided to write a book and chronicle this experience that amounted to nothing in the end. If that was her plan, and it was just some lighthearted experiment, Anderson should admit it, instead of marketing Chastened as a life-changing experience for her.
All in all, readers will be scratching their heads at the end saying “What was so special about this?” Even though readers will want to cheer for Anderson to find what she’s look for – which is so clearly an intimate relationship beyond the bedroom – readers will also be questioning whether Anderson truly understood anything in the end. Memoirs usually reach some grand conclusion, but Anderson seems to come full circle, back into herself – the same Anderson that took the vow to be sexless twelve months prior. Nothing’s changed.
Critics overwhelmingly have hounded Anderson for the flat line ending. However, the LA Times said it best: “As she resumes sex at the conclusion of the book, it’s still all about her, and it’s still loveless.” Ultimately, Chastened is truly an “unexpected story” that chronicles a year without sex for no real apparent overwhelming reason. Reading this memoir is like sitting on a train going nowhere fast — it won’t get you anywhere.
Thank you to Viking Publishing for generously providing a review copy.