Skip to content

Review: Kay Young, Ordinary Pleasures: Couples, Conversation and Comedy

Dr. Kay Young’s new book Ordinary Pleasures is a unique creation that analyzes the dialogue of couples from classic English Literature and 20th century film and TV shows. It is her intention to provide examples from different media to show how western couples communicate and develop a symbiosis or a shared understanding that creates what she calls “couple pleasure” (p.4). She believes couple pleasure can be illustrated in a couple’s conversation or in the way they build a joke together. In her words, “this book explores ways of understanding how we generate pleasure as communities of two, and how stories reveal that pleasure” (p.4). “My work examines stories that put at their center a couple, a couple exploring the question of marriage as a state to be embraced or worked through, or returned to, or resisted, but in all cases taken up” (p.5).

To show how couples create this oneness she uses different examples of “Couple Play” from classic European novels and plays, 20th century Hollywood movie scenes, and skits from early TV comedy shows. She believes that by using different narratives from film, TV, plays and novels, while each is different in form of telling the story, she can show valid interpretations of the world and relationships between couples. Since TV, plays, and films would include other forms of nonverbal communications and the novel does not, the main focus of her analysis deals with “linguistic analysis” of what is said between couples.

Dr. Young explains that “conversation is the primary mode of interaction between narrative partners. In conversation, language is traded: voices are brought side by side, respond to each other, play together…. Speech creates a possible groundwork for mutual understanding – how ‘we’ talk together determines so much of how ‘we’ know each other” (p.7).

Her book is broken into chapters that illustrate the variations in couples’ speech from narratives in early Greek philosophy to contemporary films and classic novels to famous TV comedy couples. In Part One of the book entitled “Intimacy” she uses examples from the Greek conversations of Socrates and Agathon and excerpts from Western European literature such as Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre to illustrate the beginning and acknowledging stages of couple pleasure. The ending stages of couple pleasure are illustrated with dialogue from the movie classics Gone with the Wind and Casa Blanca. Part Two of the book called “Happiness” is an interesting collection of couples depicted in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and narratives from romantic comedy films of the golden age of Hollywood, and the new male/female comedy teams of the 50s and 60s, depicted in the dialogue and situations of I Love Lucy and improvisations of the comedy team of Elaine May and Mike Nichols.

In this reviewer’s opinion the introduction is very repetitive in its rewording of the main thesis. I think the examples the author chooses were interesting but in some cases very hard to follow. I also found the book to be disjointed and in need more cohesive analyses as well as a stronger conclusion to indicate how all these disparate narratives fit together into a coherent whole.

She provides and dissects many examples of conversations, but does not use her examples to build an analysis that leads to comprehensive conclusions. Each snippet remains just that. The reader does not leave Young’s work with any conclusion other than the premise with which she began; that couples construct a common identity in different ways and forms as shown through the construction of conversations in common forms of discourse.

One aspect for her to consider is how these dialogues create a whole about how people in the past thought about couple pleasure and how these are conveyed through the eyes of both male and female writers in different ways. What kind of a blueprint do they try to create for the audience to achieve potential couple pleasure? This could show greater relevance to the linguistic analysis and at the same time tie the chapters together. An important aspect of most plays, TV shows and movies is that they have broad appeal to the masses and that the narratives generally reflect what is popular or a fantasized view of couple pleasure. Is this reflection of the popular view also true of the earlier forms she analyzes?

In my opinion this book is not easy reading and would not be suitable for a undergraduate courses or the general public. As a result it will probably stay on the bookshelves of college libraries to be read by only a few graduate students and faculty. Academics who are interested in a new way of analyzing literature may like this book’s different approach. From a social science perspective, while the book includes some reference to Deborah Tannen’s work on gendered speech, the book may have little interest to most of those in sociology, psychology, philosophy, or communication studies. Some discussion of the work of Goffman on the way in which people present themselves to others and how they create shared meaning based on culture would help to make this study a more grounded and cross disciplinary work. An interesting addition would have been to include dialogues that showed a more recent and richer variation of dialogues/conversations depicting couples from different social classes or ethnic backgrounds. This could include scenes from Love Story, American Graffiti, or Crossing Delancy Street. Another variation would be to include dialogues of black couples from plays such as Porgy and Bess and Showboat, and mixed race couples from Jungle Fever or Mississippi Marsala. Although these suggestions may be beyond the author’s primary goal of this work, they would have added more sociological interest.

In conclusion I found the basic premise of the book to be interesting but the analysis was lacking. It did get me to think a lot about the hundred of other novels, films and TV shows involving couples struggling to find happiness that are part of our collective memories and culture. The strength of this book is it will certainly lead the reader to think about how the narrative in various media may depict how couples create and script a new way to bond and achieve a shared understanding.

Reviewer: Lawrence Rosenberg is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Millersville University.

Published inIssue 3.1Issues
© 2000, Journal of Mundane Behavior. Permission to link to this site is granted. All copyright permission and reproduction requests beyond "fair use" must be approved jointly by Journal of Mundane Behavior and the individual author, and should be directed to the managing editor.