A woman walks down a grocery store aisle, and a man stops in his tracks and stares. She — and you — might never think of this fleeting encounter in the same way after reading Betsy Prioleau’s Swoon, a witty and well-researched investigation into the true nature of the ladies’ man. Instead, up rise visions of Prince Aly Khan staring uninterrupted at a would-be love during an Ascot horserace or bullfighter Juan Belmonte pursuing women with the same intensity he deployed to conquer bulls. There’s no shortage of examples, past and present, that Prioleau draws upon to let these seductive men have their say.
The specimens Prioleau has selected are meant to debunk our often evil stereotypes of such seducers and spotlight the desirable qualities these disparate men share. “[T]hey’re both denounced and admired, censored and secretly cherished,” Prioleau writes. “They’re walking projections of the forbidden — an amalgam of envy, suppressed wishes, and stifled passions.” She writes in an informal, bold way with a pinch of baud, laid on a foundation of detailed research that adds to rather than detracts from the guilty pleasure of dishing the romantic dirt. Though Casanova, whom Prioleau paints as the true ladies’ man, is most often touched upon, she also brings in numerous cases from literature (think Byron and Camus), society (Richelieu), myth (Dionysus), music (from Gershwin to 50 Cent) and even movies (starring Hugh Jackman), as well as contemporary men referred to Prioleau by everyday women.
The first half of the book details characteristics to scrutinize what forms men’s charisma and character. Though after a time this avalanche of brief sections starts to run together, just in time Prioleau smartly shifts the narrative to more practical applications, particularly how these men do what they do: “As a rule, a ladies’ man can’t just radiate charisma and character and expect women to flock. Only half of erotic conquest is who you are; the other half is what you do.” Authenticity, a zest for life, intensity and a genuine adoration of woman link these men and women’s undying love of them, but the real power lies in how they set out to please and therefore connect with women in ways that lie beyond looks, money, stability or nice-guy-ness. And while Prioleau admits that over the decades “[p]references do fluctuate,” these men’s central qualities remain valued, even in the 21st Century’s “hypersexualized culture.”
Prioleau briefly asserts that her probing examination might provide a welcome new model of modern manhood, though it’s difficult to argue the book will appeal equally to men. But for women, Swoon presents a dazzling parade of lovers who embody what women want, which isn’t always what we’re told or what one might expect. “The men who inspire and keep grand passions aren’t practical, paint-by-the-numbers products from a relationship lab,” Prioleau concludes. After spending a few hours marinating in love’s underpinnings, Prioleau may at least succeed in recharging your own joie de vivre and desire for romance — even if you find it in a grocery store.
Christine Thomas is a writer in Hawaii.