The 52 Seductions
Meet 33-year-old Betty Herbert and her slightly older husband (literary allusion incoming), Herbert. When they first met, the sex was electric, and they could hardly pass each other on the stairs without disrobing. But that was 15 years ago, and these days, they go for months at a time without so much as a smooch. It’s not that they don’t care about what happens to their marriage – rather, that they care about it too much. A decade and a half of domesticity has turned them into an ultra-cosy, Babes-in-the-Wood-type couple, who’ll happily share the cooking and cleaning, but are too frightened of rocking the boat to risk honesty about what they really want in bed. Sexual desire, as Betty puts it, feels like a ‘nefarious toad lurking at the bottom of the garden’.
A weekend in Paris, during which they’re upgraded to a hotel room with its own Jacuzzi and several years’ worth of lube in the cupboard, makes Betty realise what she’s been missing. ‘So many women of my age are out embarking on sexual adventures, but craving The One’, she confesses. ‘I found The One years ago, and wasted him.’ Tentatively, she suggests to Herbert that for the next year, they schedule a weekly sex date – a deliberate ‘seduction’ – and take it in turns to plan the encounters. Absolutely nothing will be off limits. He agrees.
The frou-frou cover of The 52 Seductions makes it look worryingly like an American self-help book, and readers would be forgiven for assuming that they were in for several hundred pages of Dawson’s Creek earnestness. Not so. This account of a spark re-ignited is as British as Barbara Windsor in a nurse’s outfit, with all the attendant awkwardness and fumbling. Betty carefully strews the bedroom with rose petals, then spends the rest of the evening picking them out of various crevices. Herbert, tasked with masturbating over a video of his wife in a public place, picks a grotty pub toilet and nearly drops his phone in the loo. At one point, Betty actually disappears down the back of the bed while the pair attempt a particularly challenging position.
But between the pratfalls and comedy costume changes are plenty of successful seductions (mirrors go down well, as do Fisherman’s Friends), and the realisation that love and understanding are two very different things. Come the end of the year, Betty and Herbert are calmer, closer and communicating far better than they were before the seductions began. ‘By doing something as simple as forcing ourselves to have sex once a week, we seemed to have dredged through every element of our lives together,’ Betty muses.
The 52 Seductions is a hymn in praise of something decidedly unfashionable – to working at it, to giving things another go, to not simply casting about for an alternative the minute the passion starts to cool. The author’s choice of nom de guerre for her husband may have been influenced by Nabokov, but there’s something very John Donne-esque in her belief that sex within the parameters of a long-term relationship can be the most thrilling, satisfying and liberating you’ll ever have – that ‘to enter in these bonds is to be free’.
The 52 Seductions by Betty Herbert; Headline; ISBN 978-0-7553-6252-3; Paperback, £12.99