[23 September 2008]
With its cheeky cover art, superimposing price points over a romantic image of a lip-locked bride and groom, One Perfect Day makes it clear right away that author Rebecca Mead is here as much to poke fun as she is to analyze.
While the London-born Mead is a Brooklynite by choice, her apparent bemusement at the trappings of the modern-day American wedding industry places her firmly in the category of an outside observer. Perhaps this drives her unique perspective on the panoply of customs and commodities that come into play in the 2.3 million weddings celebrated in America each year.
“Weddings are fun,” Mead writes in the introduction to One Perfect Day. “But the real reason weddings are compelling is that they are riven with human drama.” How this drama is acted out, Mead argues, reflects something of contemporary American culture. “We want weddings to be meaningful. But what, these days, do they mean?” This question is at the heart of Mead’s probing, incisive book.
Mead’s most poignant passage describes a wedding at the Chapel on the Hill in Hebron, Wisconsin. The chapel itself is a bit of a sob story; facing a declining population and low attendance, the church’s fiscally savvy pastor decided to offer the church up as a nondenominational chapel “to couples wanting to make the ultimate commitment ... within ecclesiastical walls, even if they didn’t actually want to come to church the rest of the time.”
The couple Mead describes seem even less centered than the church itself. Mead meets them as they awkwardly enter, “like guests just arriving at a costume party before they’ve had their first, inhibition-loosening cocktails”. The brief, ecumenical ceremony is attended by only two witnesses; the couple leave just as awkwardly as they entered. It’s hard to know which is more depressing: a church that has to prostitute itself by offering quickie weddings, or a couple to whom this compromise of a ceremony is the best they could do. Either way, it drives home Mead’s point that these vague, uncomfortable graspings for meaning reveal a deep emptiness at the center of the elaborate edifice that is the 21st-century wedding industry.
Including her sojourn to Hebron, Mead chronicles her travels criss-crossing the United States, with detours to China and the Caribbean, with vivid, unforgettable images: she describes tourists in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the so-called “Honeymoon Capital of the South”, on second-story balconies “like birds with primary-color plumage and big white claws perched on telegraph wires”. The unflinching gaze she turns on the sometimes silly, sometimes deplorable world of modern weddings make for engrossing reading. But it will be the rare reader who does not squirm a bit as both the New Age and what Mead calls the “traditionalesque” are deftly skewered.
Much of Mead’s scorn is saved for the wedding-industrial complex: the profiteers who prey on uncertain brides eager to “get it right”. But brides, grooms, and officiants fall under the knife as well, which is where the squirming comes in. However, One Perfect Day is not mean for the sake of being mean. Mead’s writing is occasionally distant, emphasizing the otherness of that which she describes, but she humanizes her subjects and even allows herself to feel for them. She dishes out not only good snark, but good analysis, too, moving beyond the easy targets of bridal magazines and the sweatshops that churn out bridal gowns to look at what lies behind it all.
Thus the reader who can withstand Mead’s nearly all-encompassing scorn will be amply rewarded. One Perfect Day asks important questions about not only the billions of dollars that are spent each year in the pursuit of happily-ever-after, but also the emptiness that fuels such purchases. Mead speaks not only to the bridal demographic, but also to a generation, which she calls the “Echo Boom”, a phrase borrowed from Modern Bride editor Antonia van der Meer.
Echo Boom women, Mead writes, have been uniquely blessed and cursed by previously unimagined freedoms. According to Mead, this freedom has “left them vulnerable ... to the pressures and persuasions of an industry that sought to provide a substitute for those dwindling authorities” that ruled their ancestors. The wedding industry, Mead concludes, for all its emphasis on setting things apart from the everyday, is just another example of how Americans, regardless of marital status, are “immersed in a culture whose imperatives are derived more and more from the marketplace”.
Mead’s criticisms hit home because the ache of being moorless, trapped between what feel like antiquated traditions and the vacuum of inventing new ways of doing things, is so common to modern life. It is just in life’s turning points, in striving to create that “one perfect day”, that we feel the ache most painfully.