Is This Really ‘Necessary’?

"Necessary Sins" - By Lynn Darling '72 (The Dial Press) Out Now

“On the fifth floor of Cabot Hall, the freshmen women talk endlessly of sex.” So begins the preface to “Necessary Sins,” a memoir from Lynn M. Darling ’72. Darling, who is also a former Crimson editor, throws us into a tableaux of the heady sexual politics of coming of age at Harvard in 1968, when being female entailed being quadded and new suitemates hotly debate so-called “liberated sex.”

“Oh, fuck politics,” declares suitemate Maeve. Darling describes how a “little thrill runs through the room. The word is still scandalous, brand new, and bright with squalor.”

Yet despite its opening, “Necessary Sins” isn’t actually a memoir about Harvard, but rather one from that so-hot-right-now, sex-filled, “personal” variety.

Darling at one point remarks that once “a good friend has asked which I would prefer—to be immortalized as a character in a novel, or to be cherished as a friend for life. A character, I said, of course.”

Close up on Darling: when we meet her again in the narrative proper, she’s a 29-year-old reporter for the Washington Post by day, femme fatale by night. “Every affair was a movie, an adventure bathed in mythic romance; every seduction conjured up a brand-new way to be,” she recounts.

Darling provides a laundry list of the sundry men she’s tumbled into bed with during the temporal black hole since that bedtime chat freshman year: “a progressive-rock disk jockey in Richmond, Virginia; the faux scion of a Polish count; a marijuana-runner on the North Carolina coast.”

Enter debonair White House correspondent Lee A. Lescaze. They meet for drinks. He compares her to a character in a Ford Maddox Ford novel and she’s pretty much smitten. Darling narrates an eerie scene of gazing from her apartment window at the silhouette of Lescaze and his wife behind drawn curtains only a block away. He has three children too, but no matter. Montage: standard affair tropes (stolen kisses, seedy hotel rooms, and the like).

Careening towards the gossipy tell-all à la Jessica Cutler’s autobiographical novel “The Washingtonienne,” that other Beltway narrative, the narrative arc of “Necessary Sins” then tacks sharply away. After Lescaze’s wife discovers his affair, he leaves his family for Darling and she realizes that life lived together is a step down from the mythic heights of romance.

Enter tragic life obstacles. As Darling’s narrative ultimately conforms to the conventional marriage plot, she assumes a more decorous tone to relate the weightier thematic content of confronting Lescaze’s son’s untimely death and Lescaze’s own terminal bout with cancer that’s more like a New York Times Sunday Styles “Modern Love” column than sex blog-cum-novel.

Perhaps the time is ripe for this kind of thing: when even a lowly Senate staffer can get herself fired by blogging about her office trysts and then garner a reported six-figure book deal for the novelization, and when a compendium “Modern Love” has been released for “anyone who’s loved, lost, stalked an ex, or made a lasting connection, and for the voyeur in all of us,” there’s no need to wait for someone else to immortalize you in a novel. Why not just cut to chase and memoirize your own “necessary” sins?

—Reviewer Alison S. Cohn can be reached at