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Mating: A Novel [Paperback]

Norman Rush
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (59 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Sept. 1 1992 Vintage International
The narrator of this splendidly expansive novel of high intellect and grand passion is an American anthropologist at loose ends in the South African republic of Botswana. She has a noble and exacting mind, a good waist, and a busted thesis project. She also has a yen for Nelson Denoon, a charismatic intellectual who is rumored to have founded a secretive and unorthodox utopian society in a remote corner of the Kalahari—one in which he is virtually the only man. What ensues is both a quest and an exuberant comedy of manners, a book that explores the deepest canyons of eros even as it asks large questions about the good society, the geopolitics of poverty, and the baffling mystery of what men and women really want.

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Had Jane Austen been in the Peace Corps in Africa in the 1980s, Mating is the book she might have written. Set in Botswana in the days before the end of apartheid, Norman Rush's novel is, essentially, a comedy of manners played out in Austen's approved milieu: a country village. Granted, the village in question, Tsau, is a utopian society created by the great American anthropologist Nelson Denoon, and run largely by and for disenfranchised and abused African women. Still, the issue that interests Rush (and the one that fueled Austen's novels) is the age-old question of who mates with whom, and why? The unnamed narrator is a 32-year-old postgraduate student in anthropology whose dissertation has just gone south on her. Drifting around the edges of the expatriate community in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, she first meets Denoon:
He was smiling at Kgosetlemang--the event was to be considered over with, clearly--and I could tell that his gingivae were as good as mine; which is saying a lot. I attend to my gums. People in the bush don't always attend to their oral hygiene, not to mention other niceties. There was no sign of that here. I of course am fanatical about my gums because my idea of what the movie I Wake Up Screaming is about is a woman who has to keep dating to find her soulmate and she's had to get dentures. I have very long-range anxieties.
Entranced by this potential soulmate, our heroine strikes out into the Kalahari Desert with a couple of donkeys and follows him to his utopia where sexual attraction, regional politics, and social experimentation make for very strange bedfellows, indeed.

Mating is a fiercely intelligent, hugely ambitious novel that takes on feminism, socialism, political corruption, foreign-sponsored rural development projects, and, yes, male-female relations in ways that are simultaneously hilarious and disturbing. Certainly Rush's language is a big part of what makes the novel work: the narrator's combination of elevated vocabulary and wacky non sequiturs is inspired. When, for example, Denoon explains to her that most of the women in Tsau are celibate and therefore so is he, she reflects that "of course the spiritus rector of a female community would need to be a sexual solitary, at least during the foundational period." She then wonders if "this situation was the analog of western series on television where the female watchership shrank to nothing when the producers let the marshal get married." Mating is remarkable for its wit, its acuity, and its ability to satirize without demeaning; it's also a heck of an entertaining story. Jane Austen would have been proud. --Alix Wilber

From Publishers Weekly

Readers of this National Book Award-winning novel, a BOMC alternate in cloth, will be captivated by Rush's narrator, a self-absorbed feminist anthropologist who pursues a famous social scientist in the Kalahari desert. Author tour.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not as good as you want it to be April 19 1997
By A Customer
A promising beginning degenerates into typical male thinking about women. Touches about expatriate life are brilliant, but when Rush gets on the subject of woman's thinking, he gets bogged down. Made me want to go read books by women about women to get a real perspective, or Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone, which actually does get it
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5.0 out of 5 stars Give us another, please, Mr. Rush. Feb. 23 2004
Don't read this book if you do not have an academic turn of mind. The vocabulary is out of sight but is just part of the fun. I did not know what I was getting into. I saw on the cover that the book had won a national award and I knew I was going to be spending two weeks in a hammock in Panama so I bought it and was thrilled to learn that it takes place in Botswana where I had visited before with the terrific books of Alexander McCall Smith and the Miss Marple of Botswana. I read every sentence and laughed out loud many times. The ending itself is funny. The protaganist gets herself so zonked out on her honey that she has to repete exactly the foibles of her predecesor when he is for once, just trying to be honest with her. Of course, she is young and believes in everything she learned in college. I certainly hope Rush is rushing to get another big fat careful novel out to us.
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4.0 out of 5 stars I almost threw this one out the window...almost. Feb. 19 2004
I picked this one up a day before departing for an overland trip through east Africa. I thought,'Hmm, a book about Africa, perfect for a trip to Africa.' As some of you might know, there are hours of time to kill while cruising tarmac roads, and this was the only book available to me (I tried to trade with someone, albeit after having declared to everyone, 'This book wants to take a trip out the window!'). So I read it.
I've often had problems with characters I think could no way exist in our society, composites of real people the author knows, carrying on as if society has no effect on them. But fiction, this wonderful genre, is all about showing how people could carry on, how they could behave. And Rush shows how a person with the narrator's attributes, education, experiences could behave in the situation at hand. Yes, I have issues with the narrator's thought processes and I rolled my eyes at her overuse of vocabulary, but she is one interesting character. And the fact that she evoked such an emotional response from me is the reason I have to give this novel its propers.
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4.0 out of 5 stars When Porcupines Mate Nov. 3 2003
Mating is a chronicle of one woman's fascinating experiences in Botswana circa 1980 and centers on her love affair with the archetypal man-of-action, Nelson Denoon, an academic superstar who has developed from scratch a remote, self-sustaining village inhabited and administered by dispossessed African women. The narrator, whose name we never learn, is an erudite anthropology MA of 32 who is struggling over her thesis and what occupation to pursue in life. After learning about Denoon's secret village she risks great peril in crossing the desert in order to cling to him and become his Boswell. She is not near so much interested in this unique and interesting village, or love, as she is in the spectacle of Denoon himself. Rush gives an impressive portrait of both Denoon and the woman in this novel. It is truly an accomplishment in itself that Rush narrates in the first person as this thoroughly convincing woman. There is also a gripping story being told here that makes this novel much more than the erudite account of two big brains in Africa that it primarily is. The splendid prose is lucid and filled with uncommon and exotic words and foreign expressions, used not at all pretentiously or superfluously.
The prose carries the novel and the story makes it worth the trip, but there is a lot to the charge that it is too self-conscious in a way that would make even Proust turn in his grave. Nothing about the woman's life is kept from us and we are bombarded with painful, obsessive over-analysis of ever aspect of life, even the most minute and seemingly trivial things. Everything in the world, every comment, every movement, is put under the microscopic lens of her academicians eye.
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1.0 out of 5 stars Worst book I've ever read Aug. 18 2003
By Leslie
I cannot emphasize enough how much I would advise against reading this book. I was annoyed and offended within the first two pages but forced myself through it since I was reading it for a book club. (About 9 of the 10 book club members detested the book as well.)
The language was poor, the characters contrived and the relationship intangible. The book attempted a "feminist" angle which was weak and formulaic. I did not identify with characters and remained very concious of the author.
Probably the most troublesome part of this book was the portrayal of African people. (Having a degree in anthropology, some background in African history and culture, and having spent some time in Zimbabwe, I feel this rant is justified.) From early on, Rush recogizes that his character associates only with ex-pat whites and has no personal relationships with Africans. This does not mean, however, that he gives any recognition or insight into the ex-patriot subculture. On the contrary, we're supposed to trust the characters and their experience by virtue of being anthropologists. Later, her love interest establishes a supposed designed society of women from various ethnic groups. Rush ignores the fact that Africans, like anyone else, have cultural backgrounds and affinities. They are not a blank slate to be manipulated, (though African colonial history shows that Rush was not the first person to think so). His proposition would be difficult for individuals giving up everything they knew and believed. Furthermore, it would be difficult to mix ethnic groups without culture clashes, or confronting historic rivalries. Rush dehumanizes the African characters. This is particularly clear when we notice that only one of this society is really portrayed as an individual.
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Most recent customer reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars Worst book I've ever read
I cannot emphasize enough how much I would advise against reading this book. I was annoyed and offended within the first two pages but forced myself through it since I was reading... Read more
Published on Aug. 18 2003 by Leslie
4.0 out of 5 stars well, i liked it very much
some of the reviewers of this novel are quite ugly in their assessments of the book--and the author. well, i liked it very much. Read more
Published on Sept. 16 2002 by a reader...
4.0 out of 5 stars Most will want to avoid this good book
Look upon this book as an "advanced" novel; one full of Latin phrases, clever witticisms, inventive musings and the like. Read more
Published on Sept. 10 2002 by Quickhappy
4.0 out of 5 stars For Those Who Like It Wild
It's pretty clear from the 50 other reviews here that this book is not for everyone. But you don't have to suffer through 150 increasingly annoying pages to decide that you can't... Read more
Published on Aug. 24 2002 by Kelly Diamond
5.0 out of 5 stars One of my favorite's
Years later, this is still one of my absolute favorite books I have read in my lifetime. I laughed out loud throughout. Read more
Published on June 28 2002 by KaylingR
5.0 out of 5 stars A fabulous, fiercely funny novel
The kind of book you want to keep calling your friends to quote the best bits from. Astonishingly intelligent and laugh-out-loud funny -- now, there's a fine combination. Read it.
Published on June 20 2002 by A reader
5.0 out of 5 stars love, academia, and africa; fun, serious, and satirical.
Many of the reviews of this book here objected to the fact that the narrator is, well, self-important, verbose, presumptuous, and pretentious. Read more
Published on June 8 2002 by Robert J. Crawford
1.0 out of 5 stars How on earth did this win the National Book Award ?
I finally gave up on "Mating" after a gruelling week of struggle to get past the interminable chapters of this absolutely dreadful book. Read more
Published on March 28 2002
1.0 out of 5 stars pompous garbage
"Mating" just may be the most nauseatingly pretentious book of the 20th century. There is an important difference between being articulate and being bombastic, and Rush... Read more
Published on Feb. 26 2002
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