THE ART OF SLEEPING ALONE: Why One French Woman Suddenly Gave Up Sex. By Sophie Fontanel. Translated by Linda Coverdale. Scribner. 153 pages. $22.
In Nicholson Baker’s recent novel, “House of Holes,” there’s a hotel in which every room has a Sex Now button. Press it, and an aroused person (male or female) will arrive, ardent to attend to your needs.
In the blinkered male imagination, women possess their own kind of Sex Now button.
The French writer Sophie Fontanel’s new memoir, “The Art of Sleeping Alone,” is about not merely employing your Sex Now button selectively, but about throwing it away altogether. For 12 years, starting at 27, she turned her body into a carnal no-fly zone.
The results, she reports, were instantaneous and long-lasting. “I’d begun to glow,” she declares. “My backbone was much straighter.” It was like yoga, without the sore arches.
Fontanel is an editor at French Elle, and her book was a best-seller in her native country, where it was published under the title “L’envie” (“The Desire”). It’s an empowerment manifesto. It was, and is, a searching investigation into the power of no.
The first thing to say about “The Art of Sleeping Alone” is that it’s very French. It’s slim, chic and humorless, that is, a sophisticated bagatelle of a volume, filled with detours to exotic locales: the Sahara, Goa in India, the Greek island of Hydra.
There’s little in the way of biography. We learn almost nothing about Fontanel’s family, schooling or job. Among the things that propels you forward is the mystery of when, exactly, sex began to seem like a terrible deal for her, like one of life’s mistakes instead of one of its gifts.
The opposite of experience is innocence, of course, and in “The Art of Sleeping Alone,” the author often longs to retreat from the adult world into one that can resemble childhood.
I was willing to cheer aspects of Fontanel’s victory over her own perceived weakness, but I wish her triumph didn’t arrive at the cost of what feels like emotional and intellectual retreat.