Poet Amy Key’s first foray into nonfiction, Arrangements in Blue: Notes on Loving and Living Alone, uses Joni Mitchell’s Blue as a foundation for a personal meditation on long-term singledom that has endured into middle age. Using the album’s tracklist as a thematic guide, Key probes her lifelong desire for romantic love from various angles. In a slow unfolding, she revisits the experiences that both informed and upended her notions of partnership including how it should be performed, and how much space it should lay claim to in our hearts and minds. The book is dedicated to “anyone who needs a love story of being alone.” Key’s honesty in confronting the highs and lows of her emotional history imbues this memoir with all the complexities of authentic love, which does not flee from the bad even as it celebrates the good.
The “right” way to engage with romance is an idea we all carry around with us, shifting it into different shapes as new information comes to us through music, celebrity couples, films, social media, and the people we interact with from day to day. Our guardians are the first to model love for us, and our relationships with them tend to influence how we relate to others throughout our lives. Key describes how her life as one of five children in a house full of second-hand furniture to parents who did not appear to love one another planted seeds of want in her. Other relationships she witnessed, including that of her maternal grandparents, were antithetical to her parents’ in that each person had a role they seemed to relish and lived harmoniously with their partner. For the author, healthy love is, and is born of, safety. Her grandparents in particular demonstrated this. Although Key took care to create a warm home environment for herself that many friends and family members have enjoyed, what she calls her “if you build it, they will come” approach has yet to attract the right romantic partner. The unspoken expectation when reading about someone—especially a woman—who has tried in various ways to summon and cultivate romantic love in her life is that it will eventually work. There will be an afterward where we discover that learning all of these lessons lead the writer to her goal. But this is decidedly not the point of Arrangements in Blue.
There is a moment in the text where Key discusses her expectations of vacationing as a twenty-something. The glamour she assumed it would bestow, transforming her into a more sophisticated, confident self. But no matter how often she traveled, or where, she always brought the self she was with her. She writes about wanting “the kind of travel I thought went hand in hand with romantic love,” which entailed “staged photos at sunset…hot tubs…to suddenly look chic in a wide-brimmed straw hat.” In other words, luxury was firmly attached to Key’s fantasies of romantic love. “I ached,” she writes, “for the status of relationship that a luxurious holiday would make obvious.” There absolutely is something inherently luxurious about romantic love. Someone outside of yourself appreciating things about you that only another person would notice. Showering you with something beyond kindness. Desiring not only sexual intimacy, but your mere proximity because it comforts them. These are all things that can turn a person into a work of art. Imagine the Mona Lisa coming to life, and holding memories in her mind of the millions who have admired her over the years. We hold ourselves differently when secure in the knowledge of being thoroughly appreciated. This is likely the reason those who are attached get chatted up more often than when they were single. They exude the confidence of the wanted.
Key ruminates on society’s tendency to treat romance as a luxury in much the same way that certain people view tampons. Women alive over the last decade especially have been encouraged to prioritize friends, family, and the self as a form of empowerment. I was very pleased to discover that this is not what Arrangements in Blue prescribes or ends with. Though Key is openly and repeatedly grateful throughout for the relationships that nourish her in a multitude of ways, she remains unabashed in her longing for romantic partnership and the specific type of love experienced therein. Never leaning too far into thirst for, or resistance to the craving, Key’s memoir is impressively balanced in the perceptions that it includes. While the author is forthright about feelings of self-loathing, shame, and other unpleasant emotions that followed certain events in her life, the book itself is written at a remove that results in what feels like total self-awareness. Key’s past self provides context for who she is today, the ways in which she has happily grown, as well as the feelings she still struggles with. Key gives herself grace, recognizing the utter humanness of her own thoughts, which in turn extends grace to any reader for whom her words resonate.
A home, children, vacations, tastes, happiness. All this and more are sharable with those we love, no matter how we love them. But nothing that we enjoy with another person is off-limits as something to enjoy on our own, even if the presence of a particular class of feeling might well enhance our experience of those things. It is not wrong to have romantic love, or to want it, and it is no less proper not to. In lyrical prose evocative of the bigness and smallness of existence, Arrangements in Blue demonstrates that it is our own opinion of ourselves that matters most. No matter how filmic a life appears, it still has to be lived, and living entails challenge and disappointment, grief and heartache, regardless of whether we have another person’s support or are adrift in the blue sea alone. Both are rewarding in different ways, and can expose new facets of us we had no inkling of. Both can also end. The point is to wade in without fear. To look and to know. And to be satisfied.
Arrangements in Blue: Notes on Loving and Living Alone
By Amy Key
Liveright Publishing Corporation
Published May 9, 2023
Gianni Washington has a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from The University of Surrey. Her writing can be found in L'Esprit Literary Review, West Trade Review, Litromagazine.com, and in the horror anthology Brief Grislys, among other places. Her debut collection of short fiction, Flowers from the Void, is forthcoming from Clash Books (US) and Serpent's Tail (UK) in Spring 2024.