Reviewed by Angela L. Eckhart
Ashleigh Renard really does it all! A married mother of three, she not only manages her own business while her husband works long hours, she also homeschools her boys. Yet she still finds time to tend to an organic garden, can 40 quarts of tomatoes, and visit sex clubs with her husband, Manny.
Renard grabs her readers’ attention as she opens her memoir, Swing: A Memoir of Doing It All (MW Books, May 2021), with a scene at a New York City sex club. Attending sex clubs was far from habitual for Renard and her husband. It wasn’t a secret addiction or even something either of them had fantasized about. She candidly describes their venture into the swing lifestyle, evolving after years of adulting and many discussions testing each other’s opinions. They agree to explore the idea, giving them something exciting to look forward to.
Renard writes that she felt secure and confident within their marriage, thanks to Manny’s mantra, “I told you once that I loved you. Unless I tell you otherwise, assume I continue to love you.” She doesn’t need doting; she expects the stable haven he provides. After all, she is quite busy! She grew up ice skating and developed her own synchronized skating organization, working with groups of young skaters. She strategically juggles her career with her life at home. In one scene, before she has her third baby, we see her carrying her two boys simultaneously. “The only way I could get Jack and Luke to sleep at the same time was to strap them both to my body in baby carriers and vacuum the house.” But even someone who “does it all” needs a well-deserved break.
Visiting sex clubs gives the couple an outlet to disengage from their day-to-day, like a date night. Only their date nights include nudity…and sometimes other naked couples. She provides a detailed look inside the clubs, giving an eye-opening and entertaining account of club decorum and etiquette, especially interesting for those who have no plans to go to one. The atmosphere turns the couple on, igniting their passion considerably. This appears to be the “charge” they both needed to relieve the monotony of their predictable lives, an enviable one for many couples in a static, daily routine. However, sometimes an extra spark can go awry and ignite an unwanted fire.
In the first several chapters, we get to know Renard as a determined, ambitious individual — a skater striving for perfection. She reveals how she dreamed about adulthood when she was seven, eventually transitioned into meeting Manny, and dove into adult responsibilities without hesitation. Of their relationship, she writes, “We agreed on most everything, or at least we were savvy about avoiding arguments when we did not.” She later elaborates, “We both abhorred confrontation and swiftly prioritized harmony in every conflict.” Perhaps dodging disagreements and having such a committed, reliable marriage dulled the shine of their relationship. Many couples, especially those with children and full-time jobs, can probably relate. But is it really so important to “do it all?”
The reader may determine that, based on all her activities, Renard is clearly dedicated and motivated to accomplish everything she sets out to do, but it’s almost tiring. Is she just living on the surface, trying to conquer what she believes is expected from her various roles as wife, mother, teacher, and professional? Is she sacrificing and neglecting her personal needs? During their foray into the swing lifestyle, unexpected desires emerge. She didn’t realize what was missing from her marriage until it was displayed before her. Ultimately, their sex club experience only glides upon the surface, like the blades of her skaters slicing through the ice. But no matter how many rules they followed for a smooth sex club adventure, the ice thinned and eventually cracked. After all, we all know how our emotions and feelings can chip away at our sensibilities, especially when confronted with temptation.
Renard’s language and clear descriptions paint extraordinary scenes, and her knowledge of the human body and muscle groups lead to some creative images. She describes cutting her leg with the blade of her ice skate in vibrant detail: “On the day of the injury it measured three inches, slicing clean through my double layer of tights, which gaped instantly, framing the cut like labia. Two tiny rivulets of blood sprang from the skin, running parallel until they pooled together in my boot, the skin between the incisions pink and pulsing, astonished that it remained untouched.”
The strongest parts of the memoir are her musings and insights. She sprinkles humor into many of the innocent and charming anecdotes about her children and family, especially the parts about her Greek in-laws. When she first met Manny, they went to see My Big Fat Greek Wedding together, and she asked if his family were like the characters. He said no, but, she writes, “Two months later I was packed into a tiny row home in Philadelphia and his aunts were spitting on him.” She writes many matter-of-fact paragraphs, often ending with a witty one-liner. For example, during an initial visit to a sex club, she explains, “Host couples are volunteers who are willing to spend part of their night showing new couples around and the people you go to if you have any questions. They are just like a Walmart greeter who you’ll possibly see naked later in your visit.”
She examines her past and reveals her emotions and her doubts until she embraces the cause of her inner turmoil. She begins to realize that it isn’t necessary to do it all, and once she exposes the truth within her marriage and within herself, she is finally able to change her outlook, and her life.
Swing is a fun albeit serious memoir of one woman’s experience of the swing lifestyle, but it’s also about the dissection of her stable and reliable marriage, transitioning into one that is more meaningful and spiritual where she can be her true self.