The Art of Sleeping Alone, A Memoir by Sophie Fontanel

Photo via the NY Times

Photo via the NY Times

By Cheryl S. Grant–

Memoirs at times can be emotional and difficult to get through but can act as catharsis for the writer. Most seem to be written as a way of releasing pain, doubt, grudge and fears. I thought that might be the case once again with Sophie Fontanel’s The Art of Sleeping Alone: Why One French Woman Suddenly Gave up Sex. Sadly that doesn’t quite seem to happen and at the end of the 153 pages, there wasn’t much for me to take away.

Fontanel is an editor of Elle France who at the age of 27 decided to give up sex for 12 years. “For a long while,” she writes, “and I really don’t wish to say when it was or how many years it lasted, I chose to live in what was perhaps the worst insubordination of our times: I had no sex life.” As a reader, I had entered into this with preconceived notions that I would find some bits of it funny or endearing, but it basically became the story of “no.” “I’d had it with handing myself over. I’d said yes way too much.”

There really isn’t any information that provides insight into why Fontanel no longer wanted to have intercourse, no background into her family and or really herself for that matter. There is a brief and unclear encounter when she was 13 that is touched upon but left unexplored, which is pretty much the premise of the entire book; each idea presented throughout is disconnected from the next. But you then wonder was this experience at 13 the lens through which she sought out relationships? She mentions her first serious relationship which occurred when she was twenty and her description of the sex life they had is less than sensual. She speaks with disdain about it and his habits. “In bed he could waggle my head back and forth in his hands…He loved the power he felt, he gloried in putting me through my paces: it fed his pride.” Were her experiences more of an exercise in dominance than something shared between two? Or was she just longing for innocence that was somehow lost at some point?

She does enjoy the perceived freedom she gains from her lack of involvement but speaks as if her friends are just not as strong. “Not one of them could stand my singleness,” she says about her friends, “because it could have been theirs.”

The book isn’t all bad. The language is charming and does read rather nicely. Her description of warm baths and her relationship with her father pulls you in and you feel connected with her for a short spell. But then the scene in which she throws away books from well-loved authors just fills you with chagrin because you are left not quite sure what to make of it. Who could discard anything written by Gabriel García Márquez? “Their contents served no purpose,” she says. “All they did was tell stories.” But isn’t it the calling of a writer to tell stories, isn’t that what they do? Isn’t that in essence what she has done by writing this book?

Yes this book has beautiful moments and could have been made better had Fontanel gained some true insight, but her having started an affair at the end of it all leaves me feeling that Fontanel gained nothing from her 12 years of introspection. The end left me feeling like I read through someone’s unfinished diary rather than the memoir it was meant to be.