Let's Call The Whole Thing Off

Is it time to cancel the wedding?  

Rachel Safier wrote There Goes the Bride during her year-long "recovery" from the fateful day when her fiancé canceled their wedding. It is, in many respects, a testament to the outsize suffering that often accompanies the minor sorrows of youth ("After my broken engagement, I felt like nothing made sense anymore. Not me, not the world"). Safier had been planning the sort of big, formal white wedding with which we have all become so thoroughly familiar over the past couple of decades, and she can hardly be blamed for doing a slow burn when "Mark" delivered the devastating news a scant two weeks before liftoff. After throwing her engagement ring on the bed and storming out of the house, bee very much in bonnet, Safier decided to let the healing begin by sending a lengthy questionnaire to sixty-two other "Almost Brides" (who had responded to an inquiry she had posted on the wedding Web site TheKnot.com) and compiling their responses in chapters bearing titles such as "How We Called It Off" and "Finding Comfort, Finding Strength." The particulars of Safier's own trauma are shared in a recurring feature called "My Story," which is printed on somber, gray-tinted pages. (A significant portion of "My Story" is devoted to explaining to readers - and this, one suspects, is no small measure of the impetus behind the writing of There Goes the Bride - that although it was Mark who actually dropped the bomb, Rachel had been this close to doing it herself on several occasions, and had stopped herself only to spare his feelings.) The sixty-two Almost Brides are quite a cast of characters. As far as I could tell, all their weddings were wisely scotched, with top honors - in a very crowded field - belonging to Roxy, who "came home early one day from work with bad cramps." She says, "He hadn't expected me and didn't hear me come in. I went upstairs, and there he was - in my missing silk panties, slip, and camisole." Is there bitterness among the Almost Brides? Aplenty. (Naomi: "His parents sat me down and told me that my attitude was unacceptable, that my family and I had no class, and that their son had decided that the wedding was off. As if their son could decide to wipe his ass by himself.") Because the contemporary white wedding is an event staged by a dozen subcontractors, the book includes ample advice about breaking the bad news to one's various vendors and possibly leveraging a broken heart into a refunded deposit. Compared with the nightmare of dealing with disappointed and possibly litigious caterers and florists, informing the "officiant" is a snap: have one of your parents tell him the wedding's off and that you'll get back to him. (Apparently he is supposed to return to his quiet lot of ministering to the sick and puzzling through Saint Augustine's Confessions until the next show wagon rolls into town.)

As it happens, I broke off an engagement many years ago, and I do remember plenty of piquantly heightened emotions and dramatic turns of events. Had I been given a copy of There Goes the Bride during that overwrought time, I might have derived some comfort from it. Certainly the recipe for Baked Four-Cheese Macaroni sounds tasty, and - who knows? - it might have cheered me up to blast Pat Benatar's "All Fired Up" at full volume. But even I - known for a tendency toward the histrionic - would have found much of the book's counsel extreme. Granted, it was a bit embarrassing to have to cancel the salmon lunch I had planned, but doing so did not put me in need of the information contained under the justly urgent subheading "If You're Afraid You'll Hurt Yourself." Nor would I have felt entitled to compare my stinky bad luck to the plight of someone facing death - yet Safier trots us through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's five stages of death and dying along with bits of advice gleaned from such notorious pick-me-ups as "Mourning and Melancholia" and the DSM-IV.

The drama and frenzy that the contemporary white wedding tends to inspire in its principals has lately become a topic of scholarly as well as popular attention. Cinderella Dreams, by the University of Illinois professors Cele C. Otnes and Elizabeth H. Pleck, examines "the relationship of ritual to consumer culture." Although its prose is sometimes marred by the jargon of the academy (white weddings, we are tiresomely instructed, are "socially lauded manifestations of heterosexual, patriarchal, and racial-biased ideologies"), the book is a treasure trove of information about the history of the opulent modern wedding, from the development of bridal registries to the rise in popularity of the diamond engagement ring (a trend created almost entirely by a De Beers advertising campaign of the 1940s). The best chapter - a model of engaging social history - concerns the evolution of the honeymoon from a period of seclusion devoted to sexual initiation to one devoted to unwinding from the stress of wedding planning. (Certainly only the deeply naive would believe that before the sexual revolution all women waited for marriage to consummate their relationships; it is, however, true that nice girls carefully fostered the outward impression of doing just that. As Oscar Levant once remarked of Doris Day, he knew her before she became a virgin.) It is this theme, of the unmooring of wedding customs and traditions from their original purposes, that propels the book most powerfully. Whereas a wedding once provided young people with a moment of transformation so powerful that even a modestly funded event was a momentous one, nowadays - with marriage an iffy bet and with most betrothed couples having already helped themselves to all the liberties of adulthood - the only way to underline the moment is to put on an elaborate and costly show. Further, there were once measures of propriety that held wedding spending in check: no large weddings for second-timers, or older brides, or couples of differing religions, or the visibly pregnant, or cohabitating partners, or couples who would have to assume large debts to throw a lavish reception, or women whose sexual history was extensive and well known. But these strictures have all eroded. With clergymen and parents no longer the guardians of wedding rituals, that role has passed to retailers and party planners, who would happily marry a pair of baboons if someone was willing to foot the bill (indeed, the summer issue of Martha Stewart Weddings included "Tips for Making Your Favorite Furry or Feathered Friend a Part of the Festivities").

Consider the Almost Brides, an astonishing number of whom allude in their tales of woe to children: children they have borne to their fiancés, or to other men, or children that their fiancés have sired with previous wives or girlfriends. That these broken engagements (many of which ended in rage fests followed by what psychotherapists usually describe as "sexual acting out" on the part of the Almost Brides) may also have constituted periods of significant loss and grieving for these children - who suddenly had to bid good-bye to a person they had expected would be a parent - goes entirely and shamefully unmentioned in There Goes the Bride. Such is the lot of children in our culture: absent stigmas on divorce or single parenting or illegitimacy, with religion often a governing factor in people's lives only to the extent that it is a boon rather than a constricting force, a child's fate in life is entirely dependent on the sexual and romantic whims of his parents. And come wedding time, the child is considered merely a cast member, a cunning little ring bearer or flower girl or - worst-case scenario - sulking adolescent in a shiny new suit of clothes, rather than someone whose life is about to be profoundly (if perhaps temporarily) affected by the events at hand.

Cinderella Dreams contains an exhaustive and rather wearing chapter on Hollywood depictions of weddings. (How can anyone who loves movies - or who possesses even a passing fondness for them - write of The Philadelphia Story that it "demonstrated its ability to perform cultural work by legitimizing the wearing of a designer lavish wedding gown"?) The best part of this discussion concerns the long-standing movie tradition of depicting brides who bolt from extravagant weddings, which are often associated with drained passion and stuffed-shirt grooms. It was only when I saw a list of such movies - from It Happened One Night (which Pauline Kael memorably described as "the Annie Hall of its day - before the invention of anxiety") and that great cultural workhorse The Philadelphia Story to The Graduate and Private Benjamin to contemporary schlock like Runaway Bride and The Wedding Planner - that I realized how often I had seen such a story. Indeed, the formal white wedding tends to conjure in the imagination not romance but, rather, its deadly opposite. In the aforementioned issue of Martha Stewart Weddings, alongside features about how to register for table linens and the advisability of throwing a reception at the Wyndham El Conquistador Resort in Las Croabas, Puerto Rico, is a page of black-and-white photographs featuring a couple who got married in New York's City Hall. "They kept it almost as small as the law would allow," we learn of the couple, whom we see standing before a justice of the peace, the bride in an ivory shift, her groom in civvies. The photographs are riveting; they seem to suggest, in a way that no carefully staged event can, all the things most alluring about a wedding: youth and impulsivity, and the power of nothing more than a spoken promise to change the course of two lives. I thought they were on to something, those two, and my hat was off to them for hitting upon the next new thing. But the forces of the wedding industry are powerful. I was disappointed to learn that the city-hall couple eventually cracked: two months after their wedding they hosted a reception for 200 guests.