The most obvious response to Leader's previous book, Why Do Women Write More Letters Than They Post?, was a bemused "do they?" His great theme is the gulf between male and female expectations, but his assumptions often seem sexist. Promises contains more such claims, as dubious as they are confident. "For men, the problem is not, Should they marry this or that woman? But rather ... should they marry at all?" "It is men rather than women who most frequently ask their partners to promise something." "If a man can say to a woman, 'Do you love me?', a woman is more likely to say 'Do you still love me?'" It's the generality that is irritating, but there are more specific claims, too. Of the Brontes it is asserted: "So powerful was Branwell's image that it was only once he had died that all the other sisters could die in their turn." And there was me thinking that Emily and Anne had simply caught TB off their brother.
For all the wit, there is an aggravating superiority of tone, as if the author is not subject to the impulses he describes in others. Human goodness is relentlessly diminished here: a saint is merely "someone who has been under-researched", and even that embodiment of probity, George Washington, must have had ulterior motives when he admitted he'd cut down the fruit tree, confessing to one crime so as to deflect attention from another. "Maybe he could have then continued masturbating in peace."
Leader is at his best as an aphorist ("People don't pass through their lives exchanging facts, since sexuality gets in the way"), or as a scintillating commentator on popular culture, as when he teases a deep meaning from an exchange in Dumb and Dumber, or analyses the baffling, self-satisfied smile of the disgraced Nick Leeson. The obligatory Spice Girls reference is more perfunctory: "These talented singers belong to the same set - the set 'Spice' - but the crucial thing about them is that they are all different ... They belong and don't belong at the same time."
In comparison, the psychological case studies are dull and obvious. Can we really believe in the "Fresh Brains Man", the literary plagiarist who craved offal? (Though I rather liked the story of the lovelorn bulimic who binged on sweets because she was told as a child that a liquid like melted sugar came out of "Daddy's willy".)
In one strange passage, Leader lambasts the "clueless" and "immensely stupid" ideas of Freud's pupil, Otto Rank, who posited the theory of birth trauma. "He is claiming, in all seriousness, that the Bastille was stormed since it represented the mother's body, that bondage signifies the return to intra-uterine immobility, [and] that the mathematical attempts to square the circle were aimed at solving the problem of fitting into the womb" - ideas which are as attractive and interesting and, to the lay person, certainly no more clueless than some of Leader's: the notion, for example, that talking animals are so popular in films and stories because they are really symbolic speaking genitals.