One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding

I read this book not from any interest in the god-awful practice of having the government get involved in your relationship, but rather out of curiosity about Mead’s reporting and writing methods which I enjoyed in her Middlemarch book. We are of like minds on this subject—the practice of elaborate, expensive, fairy-tale weddings is ludicrous—but Mead was curious about the engine that was driving this nonsense. She dives deep into wedding planning and the billion dollar industry that supports this myth, transforming weddings into “machines for making money” and tapping into the “deepest hopes and fears of consumers to accomplish their economic goals.”

Her tongue in cheek writing style rescues some of the dreariest tales, such as when a group of women gathered for a weekend-long seminar to give them “their MBA in getting married,” Mead drolly notes that the book brides would turn to most in their education would be the checkbook.

Some eye-popping stats come up, such as the average cost of a wedding increasing 100% since 1990 with people paying ~$30k for the occasion now.

Mead wonders what it means that today’s modern woman “who has, by law, as much right as her male peers to education, to employment opportunity, to financial self-sufficiency, to political independence, and to the expression of sexual freedom should want, on her wedding day, to affect the styles and manners of prefeminist femininity?”

There’s also the pathetic couple who were so entranced by the video screen showing images of their wedding that the photographer ended up with lots of photos of people sitting around watching TV instead of having a lively event.

In the end, Mead chalks it up to the overwhelming consumerism that has overtaken American culture. This is what causes the pressures to have the perfect day. I’d venture to guess that since the book came out in 2009 there’s an entire chapter to be added about the pressures of having the event play well on social media.

My Life in Middlemarch

This was a serendipitous find on the shelves of the library, nestled quite close to the book of Zadie Smith essays that I was hunting. I normally don’t stray from my proscribed list, but I had extra time on my hands on Tuesday and knew I needed to stock up on books for the week. I’m very glad that my roving eye picked this up, as it counterbalanced all the terribleness in Smith’s essays by demonstrating exactly how to do literary criticism/history/personal story.

Mead does an excellent job weaving in quotes from Eliot’s letters, journals, interviews with her acquaintances, along with Mead’s own thoughtful analysis of Middlemarch. It has me anxious to re-read Eliot’s book, which has to be at least one of Mead’s intended reactions. It’s biography, criticism, history, and appreciation all rolled into one, with the perfect dose of Mead’s own tale interwoven. This is exactly how the book should have been done.

She travels to Coventry, Weymouth, London, and haunts Mary Ann Evans’ life, tracking down her manuscript and proofs, taking us on her journey into the NYPL rare books room where she sniffs discretely at Eliot’s notebook, detecting the smell of smoke from a fireplace, perhaps from the Priory (the house Eliot bought in 1863 in St. John’s Wood). She gives an unflinching report of the drastic changes wrought on the landscape since Eliot’s time. And she gives glimpses of her own life, her young son playing in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, so vastly removed from the Victorian age.

Excellent work, highly recommended for book nerds and lit geeks. For the research wonks, it’s a great example of a very elegant way of incorporating notes at the end, grouped by chapter without tedious numbering. As usual, I’m interested in pursuing more of Mead’s work. Also, on to another read of Middlemarch!

Future reading: Haight’s biography of Eliot and Ashton’s biography