memoir / nonfiction / review

Mergers and Acquisitions: Or, Everything I Know About Love I Learned on the Wedding Pages by Cate Doty

I was really excited about Mergers and Acquisitions: Or, Everything I Know About Love I Learned on the Wedding Pages by Cate Doty because the NYT wedding pages both seem like a dinosaur and a fascinating peek into what we apparently value as a society.

I was disappointed not so much by the peek into the inner workings of the office and interviews but of the content in-between. If you are expecting any sort of critical or historical look into the wedding pages at all you will be disappointed. Her discussions were superficial and focused mostly on the mechanics of the column—the interviews and famous people and the difficulties of asking people where they went to college. The title of the book has little relation to the contents.

The author is admittedly very privileged herself and regales us with tales of her days taking ballroom dancing and attending boarding school but still is quite snarky about the even wealthier people she mostly writes about.

This ended up being one of those memoirs where the author tells you a lot more about themselves and in a different light than they think. There is something off about how she writes that she doesn’t quite seem aware of.

She gives lip service to diversity (and the lack of it in the newsroom and the wedding column) but she falters in how she writes about people and things in her personal life. Why did she include a two page discussion of another employee’s transition and how it was handled when they weren’t direct coworkers and their only interaction was a brief comment over the sinks in the bathroom during an event? Why did she tell us one of her coworkers was gay and argued about tuna salad with his husband and muse about what their life must have been like in the 1980s? Why didn’t she ask him? If she felt like they weren’t close enough to do that then why not leave him out all together? What was the point? To show that she knew married gay people?

When she goes to NOLA in the wake of Katrina, she tells us that the NYT rented an “unrepentant” refurbished plantation for the reporters and that the women were to live in the “slave quarters” and the men in the “big house” and then talks more about how they have to sleep on air mattresses instead of how bizarre and wildly inappropriate it is to have rented the place in the first place. She tells us of a reporter who rather than sleep in the buildings pitched a tent in the yard. She guessed (and again, didn’t bother to ask now or then) that he did this because wanted to avoid the noise of sleeping en masse with his coworkers. Of course, I don’t know this person but maybe they didn’t feel comfortable sleeping in either the big house or the slave quarters on a plantation?! It seems a reasonable possibility—you would not have much choice if your employer rented the place and there was a shortage of housing after a natural disaster but you have to sleep somewhere. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to be told by my employer that my options were to sleep in the living quarters of either the enslaved or their enslavers on the site of such atrocities. Actually, I can imagine. I’d be livid and would do anything I could not to sleep there and let people know how inappropriate this location was. This doesn’t appear to occur to the author.

They drive through ruined neighborhoods and she sees signs that say the name of the person who died there and rather than reflect on that she tells us the photographer they met up with was smelly and had slept on a cot for days at City Hall and needed a shower at the plantation more than she did.

She cheerily tells us that her boyfriend Michael grew up in “deep poverty” and gives examples of things she took for granted like gallons of milk and fresh garlic that he didn’t have growing up. She says that it took a while for him to share his past with her but rather then reflect why that might be, she informs us that she asked him “all the time” to tell her stories about the winters he spent in a cabin with no heat and “loved” hearing the stories of his impoverished childhood. I truly don’t understand why he didn’t break up with her then and there; she sounds like a gleeful vulture picking at the carcass of his difficult childhood. She admits that it was hard for him to talk about and how hard he worked to “escape the clutches” of his father but still she seems to have pressed him for details and then gives us description of what his father wore to a black tie wedding the three of them attended (spoiler, it was not a tux) for no apparent reason beyond contrasting it with what she wore (a beaded cocktail dress) to illustrate how poor? out of touch? the man was. A chapter later we are regaled with a story about how much he weighs and how sweaty he is and how she walked in on him getting ready to leave for the wedding in a state of undress. We are also treated to description of his underpants which apparently were lacking the proper elasticity. Why? Is it supposed to be funny? It just comes across and mean spirited.

She starts working on the “neediest cases” stories where (in her examples) they share stories of deaf men who need a flashing doorbell but can’t afford it and a teenager who needs shoes so he can work and support his mother. She seems to regard them from a distance in a way that seems othering to me and then trots out that old troupe of how they they were poor but “loved well”. Ah yes, the poor. They are lacking shoes but “poverty and trauma aside” they have love! It seemed like a way to make herself feel better about the situations and avoiding any real deep thought about why we are living in a world where a child needs shoes so they can go out to work to support their family.

She tells us of a time when her boyfriend asked for a break from her after seeing Knocked Up and he was struck by a line about wondering how anyone could really like him and was “spiraling into the deepest depression of his life”. The line set off a lot of questions and concerns he had about his life and future and deeply unsettled him. She’s very annoyed and upset at his request and grants it but eventually they begin seeing each other regularly again despite seemingly nothing changing. Then she is able to get tickets to see Seth Rogan and Judd Apatow at an event and needles her boyfriend repeatedly about going with her, even admitting that she was being mean and unjust but persisting on asking him to go despite his clear disinterest and discomfort. She talks about how fun it was to watch her boyfriend “squirm” when she made him watch Seth Rogan on SNL that same week despite acknowledging he had real issues to deal with that this movie brought to a head. It was deeply uncomfortable to read how callus she was with the man she supposedly loved and was so offended when he asked for a break to work on his mental health. She pauses to tell us she doesn’t hold a grudge against Rogan or Apatow which, of course she wouldn’t? Why is she giving more thought to them and their feelings than her boyfriend?

After her grandmother died she decides to throw her energies into her and Micheal’s relationship. She shares the story of her engagement where she is presented with a ring she finds too ugly to possibly wear. She tells him, he’s upset and she says she feels guilty about “wounding” him but is palpably ecstatic about not having to wear the ring he picked out.

How many red flags does the man need? When he “disappeared” right before the wedding I truly hoped he had made a run for it. Alas, he didn’t and she says they have a happy marriage.

We find out why she was fine with staying in a plantation—years later she gets married in what she describes in a throwaway line as “the home of a long-dead president complete with slave quarters rebuilt for educational purposes” in a paragraph about her nerves and the weather on her wedding day.

In short, the glimpses of the actual work at the NYT wedding column are surprisingly brief and lack some details. What exactly are the questions so many people find too personal? I’m still not entirely clear. I think it’s questions about ancestors and education but she sort of glosses over it. The parts about her personal life were just wild. I doubt she wrote this to make herself look bad but I really found few parts where she seemed sympathetic. In the epilogue she talks about how her experiences with the “neediest” cases and NOLA made her move to the main desk to research and edit more serious news which is in sharp contrast to the shallow and almost flippant way she talked about those points of time in the body of her book. It’s puzzling and I don’t know what is the most accurate. Eventually she left the NYT and they seem happy enough in NC so good for her?

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