In Save the Date, young journalist Jen Doll recounts her most outlandish and poignant moments as a serial wedding guest. From a destination wedding with a revenge subplot to a friendship fallout during a friend's nuptials to drunkenly slapping fellow wedding guests after too many glasses of wine, Doll's experiences run the gamut from mortifying to heartbreaking to redemptive. She may not be the perfect wedding guest, but, with a voice that's as witty as it is charming, she's the ideal wedding raconteur at the most lively table at the reception.
Doll's exploration of weddings gives way to her own anecdotes of breakups, bad dates, and unfortunate hookups. Against the backdrop of various friends' big days, the author illuminates her sometimes humiliating and sometimes poignant lessons in love. There was Jason, the chain-smoking, Midwestern nice guy who, she realized while they attended a wedding, just wasn't The One. There was Boyd, her former high school debate team arch-nemesis, who goes from wedding enemy to wedding hookup in Jamaica. There was Paul, an attractive fellow guest at a Cape May union, who – surprise! – was married.
Yet, through all of these humorously self-deprecating stories, Doll realizes that it's not just a matter of being unlucky in love, it's also her high expectations of love in an era where she and other modern women like her need not marry. "We want more than the marriage certificate. We want that other thing, too, the thing we can't put a finger on, though we know it's passionate, romantic, soulful, cosmic, fulfilling, and individualized to our own couplehood, so somehow utterly unique." The author may not have had a wedding of her own, but, she muses, how much of that is due to the dating pool and how much of that is due to our impossible notions of modern love?
"Save the Date" isn't just about romance, it's also about female friendship. Though some weddings bring bride and bridesmaids closer together by overcoming, say, prosecco-fueled bad behavior and, oh, nearly deadly reactions to dress fittings and wedding food, other weddings drive female friends far apart. In a chapter called "Please Accept My Regrets," Doll talks of her failed friendship with Ginny, who chose to stay in a tumultuous relationship. The author, unable to tolerate Ginny's husband, offers her an ultimatum. But Ginny sides with her husband, and the friendship dissolves. "These friend breakups can be even more painful than uncoupling with the men and women we have loved.... The women I consider my close friends have been so for two, five, ten, and as many as twenty-five years. I don't know what I'd do without them." Amidst the drama of weddings, sometimes the greatest love is among female friends. And sometimes that love can't last.
For Doll, weddings stir up complicated feelings about adulthood. Not only are weddings a major life milestone but they also reunite peers who have achieved varying degrees of happiness and success. She says that, when she was 25 and her friends started to marry off, "It was hard not to think about where I measured up, and I was afraid that when it came down to it, I hadn't done much at all, not in my eyes, and not in anyone else's, either."
Years later, 33 years old and a managing editor at a celebrity magazine, she looked forward to a luxurious destination in Jamaica. She bought a new wardrobe for her first vacation away from New York City in months. "And then one morning, approximately three weeks before I was scheduled for departure, I went to work and came home unemployed." Just as fraught as being the only unmarried woman at a wedding is being the only one without a job or a career. As enthusiastic as her RSVP may be, the ensuing ceremony sometimes reinforces that she's merely the older version of her high school self: slightly gawky – though, this time, swathed in more stylish clothes.
"Weddings," writes Doll. "They are fraught with emotion. They can be powder kegs. They are full of love, but they also can be tinged with anger, resentment, insecurity, doubt, and all the baggage we come with as adult humans." In this delightful and smart collection of wedding-themed essays, the most important relationship isn't between the brides and grooms but between the guest and her dates, the bridesmaids and the brides, the wedding attendee and herself. With her whimsy and insight, it's the author who deserves a toast.
Grace Bello is a Monitor contributor.