[24 August 2006]
I’m a man and she’s a woman. We’re too different. Asking a woman to share her life with a man is like asking a zebra to shack up with a wineglass.
From the first sentence of Sean Thomas’ Millions of Women Are Waiting to Meet You you’re plunged headfirst into the writer’s angsty build up towards proposing to his girlfriend. Should he? Shouldn’t he? Is he cut out for commitment? Maybe she will say ‘no’. It’s an almost universal dilemma and we’re right in the middle of it. Then, at this critical point in this not-so-young man’s life, he remembers that all of this started with an assignment to write about Internet dating.
If it sounds familiar, that’s hardly a surprise. This is thematic and stylistic territory that has seen the launch of a thousand Nick Hornby knock-offs and Working Title romantic comedies, usually starring Hugh Grant. And there’s a reason for the proliferation of books and films—the formula works.
The public has a seemingly endless thirst for tales of thirtysomething adolescents enduring crises, learning valuable life lessons and settling down, preferably all involving the love of a good woman. It can only be presumed that this latter-day myth taps into something deep within the Western psyche, the messages we would like to believe. That unexceptional and slightly childish men can have sex with a wide array of women before finding true love—that they can delay maturity indefinitely because there will always be a strong-willed and beautiful woman who will come along at just the right moment. That all it takes for a woman to turn her frog into a prince is a little patience and maybe a well-timed quickie.
Where Millions of Women differs from the lad-lit/rom-com field is that it is ostensibly a true story. Sean Thomas really is a journalist and writer who at the age of 37 was single and slightly desperate. And somehow a request by the editor of Men’s Health that he try Internet dating and write about it led him to the verge of proposing to a woman who he may or may not want to spend the rest of his life with.
This is not a significant difference from the reader’s perspective. Thomas writes with a novelist’s gift for pacing and structure. The text crackles and pops with self-deprecating wit. It’s a delightful confection and it’s almost irrelevant that Thomas is relating his own experiences. When he’s sharing his attempts to grasp online etiquette, his rejection at the hands of an attractive woman or his fumbling early attempts at sex and relationships, Thomas’ descriptions are humorous and full of pathos—a difficult balance to strike.
The story moves at a good rate of knots and the parade of girls both current and past flashes by in an instant. This truly is a book very much of its time. Thomas wisely observes that a problem with the Internet is the ability to instantaneously find a date, making all the partners more of less disposable and interchangeable. Obviously the fact that Thomas himself lives in a large city (London) and is not completely unattractive to women suggests that he may find getting dates easier than some. One can only wonder how balding, overweight accountants fare under similar circumstances.
While all this is sufficiently entertaining to merit the purchase price, it’s interesting to note how Thomas’ work fits into the great ‘he-said-she-said’ archetypes it brings to mind. Surely as a true story it can be a more significant contribution to the common understanding of relationships than mere Hollywood happy-ending comfort food? Unless the truth about Sean Thomas is unveiled as a James Frey style hoax, we can only presume that the events depicted in his web-dating memoir really occurred. So does this book lend credence to the mythmaking? Alas, only to a point.
It has often been said that the reason we make generalisations is that they’re generally true. The only problem is when people generalise from their own experiences to the universal. In fact, where Hollywood and popular fiction give the impression of universal experience through the sheer ubiquity of these romantic narratives, Thomas here is making claims not merely to his own story but to representing the essence of male-female differences.
To his credit, Thomas is appropriately wary of generalisation. Even the publishers’ blurb cautiously claims to speak for “many men, and maybe some women too”. Nevertheless, he frequently departs from his narrative to discourse at length on (straight) male sexuality. The history of gender relations writing (both fiction and non-fiction) is littered with well meaning attempts to summarise humanity into neat categories (Mars and Venus, anyone?) It’s our nature to seek easy answers, but is it always informative? And do we really need another book on the topic?
Obviously there are common themes in male desire which can be explored without stopping every sentence to qualify that this is only a generalisation. The problem here is less the generalisations per se than it is the slight staleness of the observations.
For all his broad, colourful and chequered sexual past, Thomas has not been able to discover much more than that men like looking at women. Particularly without much clothing. And they like the idea of lesbians, but they’re not sure why.
Conversely, as a catalogue of male sexual kinks and quirks, Millions of Women is impressive. Thomas’ lost weekend of Internet porn addiction, if not particularly revealing (watching sex online is appealing to lots of men), is at least informative. The pornucopia he encounters is truly bewildering: lesbian dentistry, swimming pool threesomes, interracial netball-player sex. You think of it; someone’s already captured it on camera.
Yet the degree to which this represents the majority of modern sexual experience is dubious. The beauty of the Internet is that an interest shared with only three others worldwide can be the start of a club. Like nude backgammon, or the early works of the Bee Gees. Of course, Thomas then surveys his closest friends and finds they’ve all been there too. I won’t argue with such a comprehensive survey.
Thomas’ philosophical musings aren’t all facile. His reflections on his own commitment-phobia and the impact of his parents’ relationship are lucid and even touching. He also displays a kamikaze-like disregard for self-preservation as he ponders his own impotence and sexual humiliations.
As a story of one man’s voyage into the murky world of relationships (virtual and otherwise), Millions of Women Are Waiting to Meet You is engaging and compulsive reading. Unfortunately, it’s not the insightful gender work of gender psychology some may be expecting.