Review: Robin Rinaldi’s ‘The Wild Oats Project’

THE WILD OATS PROJECT: One Woman’s Midlife Quest for Passion at Any Cost. Robin Rinaldi. Sarah Crichton/Farrar Straus Giroux. 287 pages. $26.
THE WILD OATS PROJECT: One Woman’s Midlife Quest for Passion at Any Cost. Robin Rinaldi. Sarah Crichton/Farrar Straus Giroux. 287 pages. $26.

Get ready for The Wild Oats Project. And not just the book: the debates, the think pieces, the imitators and probably the movie. Get ready for orgasmic meditation and the Three Rules. Get ready for “My Clitoris Deals Solely in Truth” T-shirts.

Robin Rinaldi, a magazine journalist living in San Francisco by way of Scranton, Pennsylvania, initially wasn’t sure she wanted children, but she knew that Scott, her stoic Midwestern husband, did not. Rinaldi decided a baby would bring purpose to their lives, but Scott wouldn’t change his mind. When Scott opted for a vasectomy, she demanded an open marriage.

“I refuse to go to my grave with no children and only four lovers,” she declares. “If I can’t have one, I must have the other.”

If you’re wondering why that is the relevant trade-off, stop overthinking this. The Wild Oats Project is the yearlong tale of how a self-described “good girl” in her early 40s moves out, posts a personal ad “seeking single men age 35-50 to help me explore my sexuality,” sleeps with roughly a dozen friends and strangers and joins a sex commune, all from Monday to Friday, only to rejoin Scott on weekends to, you know, work on their marriage.

The arrangement is unorthodox enough to succeed as a story, and in Rinaldi’s telling it unfolds as a sexual-awakening romp wrapped in a female-empowerment narrative, a sort of Fifty Shades of Eat, Pray, Love. “I wanted to tell him to f--- me hard but I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth” is a typical Rinaldi dilemma. At the same time, she constantly searches for “feminine energy” or her “feminine core” or for a “spiritual practice guided by the feminine.”

But more than empowering or arousing, this story is depressing. Rinaldi just seems lost. Still sorting through the psychological debris of an abusive childhood, she latches on to whatever guru or beliefs she encounters, and imagines fulfillment with each new guy. She still rushes to Scott whenever things gets scary (a car accident, an angry text message), yet deliberately strains their union beyond recovery.

Robin and Scott agree to three rules — “no serious involvements, no unsafe sex, no sleeping with mutual friends” — that break. He finds a steady girlfriend, while Robin violates two rules right away.

The men and women she hooks up with — some whose names Rinaldi has changed, others too fleeting to merit aliases — all blur into a new-age, Bay Area cliche. Everyone is a healer, or a mystic, or a doctoral student in feminist or Eastern spirituality. They’re all verging on enlightenment, sensing mutual energy, getting copious action to the sounds of tribal drums.

But they are all so uniform in their unconventionality that it’s hard to keep everyone straight. This book needs an org chart.

Rinaldi holds little back, detailing her body’s reactions along the way. At first she is upset that she can’t feel pleasure as quickly as other women, but she finally decides she’s glad that her “surrender didn’t happen easily, that it lay buried and tethered to the realities of each relationship.” Her clitoris, although “moody,” was also “an astute barometer. ... It dealt solely in truth.”

Rinaldi can’t seem to decide why she’s doing all this. The project is her “rebellion.” Or “a search for fresh, viable sperm.” Or a “bargaining chip.” Or “an elaborate attempt to dismantle the chains of love.” Or just a “quasi-adolescent quest for god knows what.” If exasperation could give you orgasms, this book would leave me a deeply satisfied reader.

One of her oldest friends calls her out. “How is sleeping with a lot of guys going to make you feel better about not having kids?” she asks. Rinaldi’s answer: “Sleeping with a lot of guys is going to make me feel better on my deathbed. I’m going to feel like I lived, like I didn’t spend my life in a box. If I had kids and grandkids around my deathbed, I wouldn’t need that. Kids are proof that you’ve lived.” It’s a bleak and disheartening rationale, as though women’s lives can achieve meaning only through motherhood or sex.

When the year runs out, Rinaldi returns to Scott, even though she soon starts an affair with a project flame. No shock that post-project, their chemistry is off, and when Rinaldi makes a casual reference to their time apart, Scott finally explodes. “Do you know how many nights I cried myself to sleep when you moved out!?” he asks. “Do you care about anyone’s feelings but your own!?” She was “too stunned to reply.” But the fate of this marriage, revealed in the final pages, is anything but stunning.

This is a frustrating book, with awkward prose, a perplexing protagonist and too many eye-rolling moments. Yet it is also a book I see launching book-club debates and plenty of pillow talk, not just about sex and marriage, but about the price and possibility of self-reinvention. You don’t have to write a great work to cause a great stir.

Carlos Lozada reviewed this book for The Washington Post.