Valentine's Day Book Club: Love & Money

Curl up with 'The Secret Currency of Love' this Saturday.

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At first glance, The Secret Currency of Love: The Unabashed Truth About Women, Money, and Relationships, edited by Hilary Black, gives the impression that women truly are hopeless when it comes to money.

One contributor admits to not knowing the passwords to her bank account or how much her mortgage costs each month. Another finds herself drawn only to penniless and financially dependent men. Another prefers men who can lavish her with luxury.

I wondered where all the women with normal, healthy relationships with money were. But as I read on, drawn in by the honesty of the writers, I realized, it's not that these women have disastrous relationships with money, it's that it's complicated. And by delving into the subtleties of those relationships, the book makes some fascinating revelations. First, that there's nothing wrong with wanting to have money. As we see in the book, money allows people to have and support children and to pursue the career of their dreams. There's nothing superficial about that. In one of the most powerful essays, by Veronica Chambers, she explains that because she grew up getting beaten by her father, she wanted to make sure her daughter had enough money to ensure she was always safe and protected. (Eventually, when her daughter is born two months early, Chambers realizes that just surviving and being there for her daughter is worth more than any trust fund.)

Second, money appears to play a central role in many relationships, especially marriage, as the title of the book suggests. Lucy Kaylin tells how on her first marriage anniversary, her husband told her that she had to stop berating him about his spending habits. She had a tendency to get on him about bills and expenses, and it was driving him crazy. "You have to stop trying to change me, because it's not going to work," he told her. She listened, and did stop trying to change him. Not only did he start making good money by applying his love of rare books to a career as an art adviser and appraiser, but they remain happily married.

Third, early experiences with money can leave us scarred. After she breaks up with a serious boyfriend who counted pennies -- even for cough syrup -- to make sure he paid only half of household expenses, Ann Hood meets her future husband. They decided to maintain separate financial accounts, largely because they had such different money habits, but Hood also wonders if it was a reaction to her last relationship. Hood and her husband keep money so separate that her husband took an expensive trip to Russia while she was taking on extra writing assignments to pay her half of household costs. (Hood has since written a bestselling book, The Knitting Circle, so she can now take as many trips to Russia as she wants.)

The book is so gripping largely because of the quality of the writing. Many of the contributors, from Amy Sohn to Julia Glass to Amy Cohen, are well-known authors. That Black has narrowed down the focus and encouraged such introspection begs the question of readers: What essay would I have written?

Hilary Black will be featured in an upcoming edition of the Alpha Consumer podcast.