Are some people "constitutionally unsuited" to marriage? That's the question the free-spirited narrator of Eliza Kennedy's saucy first novel, I Take You, keeps asking herself between drinks, seductions and a mess of complications during the frenetic week leading up to her Key West wedding.
Even though her fiance — a sweet, eggheaded archaeologist — is a dreamboat, Lily Wilder is conflicted about getting married because she loves to sleep around. Her name may evoke Edith Wharton's heroine from House of Mirth, but this wilder Lily isn't tragic, and she isn't looking for a husband to save her. Above all, she prizes fun — which she finds in sex, booze and her demanding work as a high-powered litigator. Don't even try to tote up Lily's lovers — never mind her bar tabs.
Kennedy, a graduate of the University of Iowa and Harvard Law School, is a former litigator herself, and married to writer Joshua Ferris. Her snappy comedy of mis-manners delights in subverting expectations, from its indictment of monogamy as unnatural to its ardent defense of lawyering and casual sex. Lily unabashedly extols her job: "Because being a lawyer is great. It's mentally engaging and competitive and fun. Work is really the only time that I feel focused." She reconsiders: "That's not true. One other thing focuses me. But I don't get paid for it." She reconsiders again. "That's not true. I got paid for it once."
I Take You effervesces with colorful characters, including Freddy (Winifred), Lily's bisexual Korean maid-of-honor and sidekick, and Izzie, Lily's grandmother, a crackerjack criminal defense attorney unhappy about forced retirement. Lily's mother and two stepmothers — a construction contractor, fearsome congresswoman and socialite — make up a coven of role models that's a far cry from Updike's witches of Eastwick or Shakespeare's trio of Weird Sisters. They try to persuade wayward, insouciant Lily to call off the wedding because "We all know exactly what it's like to be married to someone who is, let's just say, constitutionally unsuited for monogamy."
That would be Lily's impossibly charming, rich, unrepentant father. Henry "has organized his entire life around a single principle: maximizing his own pleasure." He even argues that his divorces, far from damaging his daughter, in fact taught Lily "about the fundamental instability of the universe. The inevitability of change."
Kennedy's story hurtles between multiple sodden bachelorette parties, bar- and bed-hopping, insistent calls from a nasty senior associate in New York, nonstop texts and hilarious meetings with an over-the-top wedding planner about Key lime ice pops and color-coordinated everything. In a typically giddy scene, Lily and Freddy, both high, work out a seating arrangement that groups guests by hair color and — my favorite impish detail — places "all the left-handers to the right of right-handers."
Throw in a dark, guilty back story, a future mother-in-law who's not just a "tiger mom from hell" but a federal prosecutor not above blackmail, plus an emergency deposition that threatens the outcome of a morally questionable high stakes lawsuit (and makes the unorthodox legal tactics in Legally Blonde seem staid by comparison) — and you've got a screwball comedy geared as much to screen as to paper.
Does Kennedy go too far? Sometimes. But amid the hijinks, she actually attempts to drive home a few serious points about sexual stereotypes and mixed cultural messages about female desire and assertiveness. Lily and Freddy rue the rash of negative words for women who like casual sex — slut, tramp, floozy, strumpet, harlot, tart, nympho — yet can think of none with such negative connotations for men (though perhaps that's because they've had so much to drink).
I Take You, as salty-sweet as a margarita, will appeal to fans of Seating Arrangements, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, and, looking further back, Laurie Colwin's Happy All the Time, though it's far more ribald. Kennedy's novel, tailored for summer wedding season, is a sassy paean to pleasure and romantic love that may well leave you singing that classic Gershwin line, "Better call the calling-off off."