That Thing You Do With Your Mouth (McSweeney’s, $15) is a brilliant title for a sexual memoir. It’s suggestive, seductive—a real attention-grabber. The book—subtitled The Sexual Autobiography of Samantha Matthews—is the product of many long, intimate conversations between Matthews (an American actress living in Barcelona with her family) and the author David Shields, who has written 18 books, including Reality Hunger.
It’s also worth mentioning that Matthews is Shields’ cousin, once removed. For years, Shields encouraged Matthews to make a documentary inspired by her work dubbing Italian pornography into English. When that project failed to materialize, Shields began a dialogue with Matthews (via email, texts and video chats) that swelled to more than 700 pages. Shields shaped and pruned the material considerably, and the finished product is honest, raw and compulsively readable.
That Thing You Do With Your Mouth is a time-hopping sexual chronicle that reads like an intimate, late-night chat. There is the awakening sexuality at age 5, and a series of boyfriends, many of whom are characterized as “not nice.” There are experimentations with females (“With women, I felt adored and open; unafraid. … I felt a strength and a femininity emerging from me that I’d always hidden”). And there are low points (Matthews describes a demeaning photo session with her ex, a full year before she ends the relationship).
Approximately halfway through the book, Matthews (“I’m a weird mix of shyness and fuck-all”) shares her memories of sexual abuse, which took place between ages 2 and 5, courtesy of two half-brothers from her father’s previous marriage. Of course, family life was never stable; Matthews’ mother is an alcoholic and her parents’ marriage was marred by infidelity and various abuses.
Samantha’s eventual marriage to best friend Jaume ends in divorce, but does yield two children: Roc and Ava. Then Samantha meets William, a man she loves but not without difficulties (“The problem with being in a monogamous relationship, especially once you’ve entered middle age, is that not only will you not be with anyone new but you won’t be new with anyone, either.”).
That Thing You Do With Your Mouth should prompt some honest conversations between men and women and bring some measure of comfort to trauma survivors, but I wish it was more substantial. Too frequently I complain about a book being overly long. In this case, I wish the finished product was twice the size. One hundred and sixty pages isn’t nearly long enough to get to know Samantha Matthews, and though I felt emotionally invested with her story, it was over too quickly. I found myself longing for a connection that wasn’t there, much as I wanted it to be. ★★★✩✩