What the heart wants

Paul Constant

December 16, 2015

If you’re a human being with a working heart, you will cry when you read The Best Party of Our Lives1. Likely multiple times. Sarah Galvin’s2 collection of interviews with same-sex couples about their weddings is a goddamned happy-tear factory. Whether you prefer to read stories of old couples or young couples; whirlwind romances or thoughtful, long relationships; couples with opposite interests or couples who are practically clones of each other; you’ll find a pairing here that speaks to you.

The empathy in this book is so strong that it practically throbs. It will make single people want to fall in love and it will make committed couples fall in love all over again. It’s the kind of book you wish you could send back in time to the 1990s, when President Clinton promoted the Defense of Marriage Act, to let people in the past know that they are only delaying the inevitable, wonderful truth of marriage in 2015: that the world is a better place when everyone can marry whoever they want, and when families aren’t broken up over something as trivial as sexual preference, and when love does, eventually, conquer all.

Galvin, whose poetry collection The Three Einsteins instantly marked her as one of Seattle’s smartest, funniest poets, proves to be a disciplined reporter in The Best Party. The couples in this book appear to effortlessly reveal intimate details about their personal lives, which Galvin then relates with respect and sympathy.

The book is structured, ingeniously, like a wedding. The profiles are broken out into five sections: Engagement, Planning, Ceremony, Reception, and The Happily Ever After Party. And certain similarities are evident after reading just a few of the chapters; Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a touchstone in many relationships, as is Oberlin College, and weird online dating coincidences. But there are deeper reverberations, too: many of the couples became serious after some sort of health crisis — often an ailing parent, but in one case a young relationship deepened when a woman became a caretaker for another woman who suffered a broken spine after a bicycle accident. Who could read these stories of finding something to love in the embers of tragedy and want to deny same-sex couples the right to marry? How does this story not break your heart?

Alyson is a transgender woman. She grew up in Montana in a relatively conservative family, but when, at sixteen, she told her father she was experiencing confusion about her gender, he was surprisingly sensitive and receptive. At twenty-two, though, when Alyson came out to both her parents as transgender (having discovered the nature of her confusion), her mother’s crushing response was that God makes no mistakes and that she would make an ugly woman anyway. “I basically went back in the closet for nine years,” said Alyson.

Eventually, with the help of a woman named Carolina, Alyson discovered her true self, and eventually she married Carolina. Like the best marriages, they’re saving each other in little ways all the time.

Some of the best stories in The Best Party contain asides that could make up their own chapters. One relationship was complicated by the fact that both women were in unhappy relationships:

Molly was similarly trying to extricate herself from a bad relationship. She had recently moved in with a woman from Japan, despite the fact that Molly knew no Japanese and the other woman knew very little English. That they were living together, in fact, was the result of a miscommunication.

That’s all we hear of that relationship, though it sounds like it could be a book of its own.

Once you wipe the joyful tears away and assess Best Party with clear eyes, a few flaws do make themselves apparent. The couples in the book are nearly all white, so the representation feels wide but strangely shallow in places. And Galvin’s introduction and afterward are so insightful and interesting that you wish she had put more of herself in the book. For most of Best Party, she’s the invisible interviewer, the journalist struggling to stay out of the shot. It’s a selfless move, and it’s a demonstration of good instincts — one can imagine an airheaded attempt to tell this same story, only with the author’s own quest for love slathered on top as an intrusive narrative to tie the stories together; that book would be an unmitigated disaster.

But Galvin is so smart and compassionate a storyteller that the reader wants a little more of her perspective on the story. Her afterward is a meditation on the fluidity of gender and sexuality that adds additional complexity to the stories that came before. And her introduction is so personal that more of her absurdist poet’s voice comes through. One bit in particular about Galvin’s stint working as a server at weddings produces a particularly striking image: “I served enough champagne to fill a Cadillac and enough hors d’oeuvres to bury one.” It’s one of the best lines in the book, and a small dose of Galvin in some of the stories to add a few more lines like it would have provided more of a thread between the stories.

But The Best Party of Our Lives is terrific as it is: a collection of stories that will create a warm puddle in between your lungs. The bitterest of us will close this book with an impish desire to send a gross to the nearest bigoted anti-gay evangelical church, and the rest of us will leave the book out and flip through it at times when we want to remember why the human race is worth saving. It’s a testament to the desire articulated by an obscure handful of hippies more than a half-century ago that love, in fact, is all you need.

  1. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to mention the fact that Galvin refers to a weekly Stranger column called Party Crasher, in which a reporter went to a house party and reported back on what they saw, as an inspiration to her as a high-school reader of the paper. I wrote that column for a year and a half, and Galvin refers to a column that I wrote in her introduction. I mention this only out of my obligation to be an honest reviewer, not because any of my columns have anything to do with the true inspiration of this book; the latter charge would be like comparing a toy xylophone to a symphony orchestra.

  2. It should also be noted that Sarah Galvin will launch The Best Party of Our Lives this Sunday at Hugo House with some couples from the book. There will probably be happy tears.

Books in this review:
  • The Best Party of Our Lives
    by Sarah Galvin

    December 15, 2015
    240 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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