In her nonfiction debut, “Arrangements in Blue: Notes on Loving and Living Alone,” poet Amy Key weaves together Joni Mitchell song lyrics, diary entries and grieving her friend Roddy’s untimely death to explore how romantic love–as well as its absence–operates on personal, political and poetic levels. Expanding on her Granta essay “A Bleed of Blue,” Key’s collection reflects on her childhood in South Shields, England; her moves in and around London in her twenties and thirties; and her status as a single woman in her forties. The result is a lyrical meditation on the small moments of domesticity, rest and bliss that Key experiences as an independent woman and artist that’s simultaneously complicated by the earnest and ceaseless desire to find a partner and become a mother.
Key’s prose melds the investigative with the personal as she critiques the limits of romantic love and how harmful cycles can repeat themselves in heteronormative relationships. Key observes how she consciously and unconsciously takes on significant household and emotional labor, which she links to how her mother and their home was “dictated by my dad’s mood.” As an adult, Key adopted this approach in her own relationships: “I’ve so often found myself pleasing, placating, managing–perhaps thinking this was how I needed to be to receive someone’s love.” Yet identifying these patterns is only half the battle; the rest of the book portrays just how hard it is to attempt to break them, especially when it comes to the relationship you have with yourself.
One of the best aspects of the book is how Key navigates this tricky paradox of loving yourself, or self-love, so that you can be loved by someone else, or self-realization. If self-love ought to be enough, then why is it so often positioned to serve the purpose of finding love elsewhere? And if she does love herself, or at least comes close enough, then shouldn’t a partnership follow? While there is no easy way out of what she calls this “double bind,” Key also points to the real conditions that limit single people in society. A running thread in Key’s book is the vicious cycle of amassing debt and paying it off only to accumulate it again for purchases couples can easily make with two incomes versus one. In this sense, Key’s book not only focuses on her self-talk on the complexities of self-love but also gestures toward the broader social and political ramifications of single life.
While the book spans ten chapters, there is no clear thesis on how to reconcile the ambivalence of romantic love and the simultaneous struggles and joys of single life. Instead, “Arrangements in Blue” feels more akin to a Joni Mitchell song—strong as it is tentative, wavering as it is hard-hitting, an essay collection whose thoughts rise and fall like ocean waves with Key examining both the wreckage and the treasures that find their way to shore.
“Arrangements in Blue: Notes on Loving and Living Alone”
By Amy Key
W.W. Norton & Company, 240 pages, $28