On Being Up a Creek with Only a Paddle

Love Is a Canoe is about how people in love will latch onto any floating bit of debris to salvage their sinking relationships.

Love Is a Canoe

Publisher: Picador
Length: 352 pages
Author: Ben Schrank
Price: $12.97
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2014-01

Why do so many men cheat on the women in their lives? It might have something to do with the fact that a disconcertingly large proportion of women seem to be helplessly attracted to precisely the kind of men that appear most capable of cheating on them, even as they hope and trusts that, in their own particular case -- and due solely and satisfyingly to their own insinuating love and overwhelming sexual allure -- this time, the men actually won’t cheat.

There’s a male character in Love Is a Canoe, the new novel by Ben Schrank, that appears from page one to fit the bill of a future cheater, so it’s no surprise at all when, a few flirtations with a fellow worker later, he does. His name is Eli, and he’s “still a big kid” (aren’t they all?) who smells “like iron and oil from his bicycle factory” (he’s a bicycle-manufacturing entrepreneur, so he’s iron-bound but irreproachably green at the same time!), and has “legs like tree trunks” and “dark hair that he wore a little long and his eyes were brown but sometimes she saw them flash violet.”

“She”, in this case, is Emily Babson, a beautiful and brilliant branding consultant, upon whom the unexpected (by her) and totally expected (by us, the reader) infidelity is visited. We like her almost from the novel’s beginning because she means well, and because being attracted to someone partly because he seems the type likely to cheat isn’t, of course, as bad as actually cheating.

Love is a Canoe is a good-natured, diverting and only mildly cynical satire about what happens when Emily decides not to take her husband’s infidelity lying down -- though she and he do a fair amount of that as well in an effort to screw their wedding vows back to the sticking place. Principally, however, she chooses to fight.

Did I mention that Emily and her bicycle-building husband live in an “oversize limestone townhouse” in Brooklyn? Did I need to? Would Picador have published this novel if Eli were a nuclear submarine engineer in Jacksonville with mullet-like tendencies and Emily a moderately overweight day care worker? Indeed, in almost every respect, this is a novel of and from and by that most provincial of all subcultures, the New York publishing industry. (The author himself, incidentally, doubles as the president and publisher of a Penguin imprint.)

Thus, Emily and Eli’s potential marital salvation comes in the form of a publishing industry publicity gimmick designed to revive the fortunes of a yellowed-at-the-edges former bestseller, a collection of wheezy, well-meaning and utterly useless marriage advice from the '60s itself called Love Is a Canoe. This self-help book is still in print, though barely, and an ambitious young editor named Stella Petrovic hits upon the not-bad idea to sponsor a contest, marking the 50th anniversary of the book’s debut, for couples with troubled marriages.

The winners (or “winners”) get to spend one day with the dog-eared author of Love Is a Canoe, Peter Herman, for “home-cooked meals and homespun advice.” Yikes. That Herman is an affable phony who never wrote another book, and barely even wrote Love Is a Canoe, goes unmentioned in the publicity materials.

Emily and Eli end up winning, thanks to a heartfelt entry by Emily, who truly wants to save her marriage, but the contest is about as flimsy as an ancient birchbark canoe. This fact redounds on Eli and Emily, of course, but also on Stella, and on the widowed Peter and the new woman in his life, and on Helena Magursky, the president and CEO of Peter Herman’s publisher, Ladder & Rake Books.

Helena, who appears to be modeled closely on the character Meryl Streep overplayed in that movie where she ostentatiously treats Anne Hathaway like a piece of gum she has to scrape off of her Manolo Blahniks, has some surprising connections of her own to Love Is a Canoe and to Peter, who’s also prone to getting prone with women other than his wife. The ripples of both of these genial frauds -- the original self-help book and the contest itself -- eventually threaten to swamp pretty much everyone.

Schrank deserves much credit for turning this premise into a buoyant entertainment. He’s brave enough to include excerpts from the rather ridiculous Love Is a Canoe and somehow convince us that this silly and insubstantial book could have been a bestseller, not to mention a continuing influence on a sophisticate like Emily. He makes Peter Herman, Emily, Eli, Stella and all the others seem like real people with real problems and genuinely pathetic delusions, just like the rest of us – including the delusion that 50 years after he lucked out with his one big bestseller, Peter Herman would have anything at all worth saying that would bail out a floundering young couple’s marriage. In the end, all of them get their just marital and professional deserts anyway, with the “Love is a Canoe” anniversary contest being at best merely a catalyst and, in some ways, closer to a MacGuffin as regards the disposition of the characters’ lives.

As far as the eponymous novel by Schrank, it may not have any startling statements to make about contemporary marriage or the publishing industry, but the medium-sized observations it does make, especially about how people will latch onto any bit of floating debris to salvage their sinking relationships, are sincere, affecting and amusing.




Reading Pandemics

Pandemic, Hope, Defiance, and Protest in 'Romeo and Juliet'

Shakespeare's well known romantic tale Romeo and Juliet, written during a pandemic, has a surprisingly hopeful message about defiance and protest.


A Family Visit Turns to Guerrilla Warfare in 'The Truth'

Catherine Deneuve plays an imperious but fading actress who can't stop being cruel to the people around her in Hirokazu Koreeda's secrets- and betrayal-packed melodrama, The Truth.


The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.


90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

'Avengers: Endgame' Faces the Other Side of Loss

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our pandemic grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.