In the early 1990s, when Mating was first published, a group of young women in my office had a book group that became somewhat obsessed with the book, quoting it to an extent that became, well, annoying to those of us not in the book's thrall. These young women were around 30, well-educated, intelligent, articulate--much like the nameless narrator of the novel. They did not, however, trek across Africa in search of their ideal mate. But I digress before I have even started.
At the beginning of Mating, the narrator is living in the capital of Botswana, at loose ends because she has been forced to abandon her research for her dissertation in anthropology because her hypothesis was utterly unsupported by the evidence. She has discovered that she can make a living by acting as something of a freelance docent, helping expats understand the culture in which they find themselves. She has had a series of unsatisfying relationships and is looking for someone she can connect with on an intellectual level.
Then, she encounters Nelson Denoon, a dashiki- and headband-wearing intellectual who, she has heard, is working on a secret development project in a remote village called Tsau. Despite being married, he displays some interest in the narrator and, when he returns to Tsau, she decides to follow him, setting off on an insane solo journey across the Kalahari Desert to pursue Denoon. She arrives in Tsau and launches her campaign to win Denoon in an unusually intellectual and wordy romantic campaign.
As Nelson and the narrator build their relationship debating socialism, development economics, biology, literature, and everything else under the sun, she becomes part of the Tsau community. Ironically, Tsau has been designed as a female-run African collective dominated by a white male from outside the culture--a situation destined to eventually cause trouble. And, indeed, as the community evolves, trouble for Denoon arrives. While in denial about his changing status in the community, Denoon does undergo changes that throw his relationship with the narrator into chaos.
Mating is a lengthy book, and, throughout, the author demonstrates an amazing vocabulary (if I had looked up every word that was unfamiliar, I'd still be sitting at my dictionary) and impressive breadth of knowledge. He invents amusing word games that Denoon and the narrator play for their own and our amusement. While this produces some fascinating discussions, it also produces some long, tedious sections. While I enjoyed the narrator's humor and adaptability early in the book, over the course of 500 pages, she began to wear on me--her neurotic personality (when confronted with situations she does not understand, she generates lists of unlikely explanations, torturing herself with the uncertainty), admitted self-centeredness, and willingness to subjugate herself to Denoon. At some point, I began to look forward to the ending, which ended up not making a lot of sense to me--though it did demonstrate the narrator retained her resourcefulness.
Am I glad I finally read Mating? Yes. Will I quote it obsessively? Absolutely not. Would I recommend it? In a qualified way--give it a try; you may find yourself among the book's many devoted fans. If not, do not feel bad about letting it go--the latter part of the book does not hold startling insights about mating, development, feminism. In essence, it holds more, lots more, of the same.
We all love hubris in a mate, but we prefer it in moderation.