Since getting married this past summer for the second time in my life, the subject of marriage has been on my mind a lot. I often wonder what marriage actually is: mostly a financial contract, a steady undying love, a deep, deep friendship, a caring of another person and being cared for in return, a respectability hideout, an antiquated political or religious institution? All of the above? The topic is rich and varied. Here are some favorite reads that cover a wide range of the above aspects of an old tradition that does not seem to be dying out, regardless of the reasons for entering into it.
Marriage from both sides is vividly delineated in this award winner from Groff, author of acclaimed novels Arcadia and The Monsters of Templeton. One may not have to think too hard about which side is the “furies”. The “fates” part of the story features the husband, Lotto, an actor from a wealthy family who struggles before finally becoming a famous playwright (somewhat by accident rather than hard work and talent). He marries the striking and regal Mathilde (the “furies” part), who had been his classmate at Vassar. She adores him, supporting and smoothing the way for him both before and during his career rise, but she also keeps some deep secrets from him. And one cannot disregard the sex in this book: Groff throws her best and nearly limitless prose at it like a blizzard. Her writing almost overwhelms at times, yet it is also impossible to ignore. The writing and surprises and sudden curves at the end make it a most unique read.
What stuck me so strongly about this memoir was its unadorned, brutal honesty about a man’s mid-life affair, and its impact on him, his wife and children. When Joe and Deb got married, they jumped on a motorcycle and took the whirlwind trip of their dreams. They then settled in Iowa City, bought a small house had four children (one severely autistic), then discovered their golden dreams turned dull and rusty. Joe’s challenging family life finally led him to have a brief affair. Why and how he went back to his family was riveting, painful and courageous. I have often wondered what the “guts” of infidelity must feel like, and how it would affect a marriage. This beautifully written memoir has echoed again and again in my consciousness. I keep wondering what Joe’s wife felt upon reading this story; there are obviously two courageous people in this vivid, memorable memoir.
Favorites from years ago (Mrs. was first published in 1959, and Mr. ten years later). Set just before WWII in an upper middle class family in the Midwest, it would be easy to underestimate the depth and nuance of both characters. Mr. Bridge is a successful lawyer, who is all about gaining affluence and respectability in his community. Mrs. Bridge, a traditional housewife seems weak, passive, and unaware when first introduced. Yet Connell ‘s understated writing and droll wit captures the characters and their times perfectly. Also made into a lovely movie a number of years ago with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward as the Mr. and Mrs. Read the books, see the movie, or better yet, do both: they are that closely matched!
If ever there was a beautiful testament to married love and deep friendship, it was this story of acclaimed author Ackerman and her care for her novelist husband Paul West after his debilitating stroke at age 74. They had met when he was a literature professor at Penn State, and she a somewhat hippie undergraduate. Together, they explored and kindled each other’s passion for words and writing. So it was an ironic tragedy that West’s stroke affected the language center of his brain, and he was not expected to recover. Ackerman has explored the realm of the mind before, in her 2004 book An Alchemy of Mind. But this very different challenge was not academic–it was a fight for his survival, his ability to recover communication and a fight for their marriage. Ackerman’s work to help her husband heal and recover is breathtaking in its energy and stamina and unequaled in its commitment. Now this is a true love story.
What if your marriage partner sat you down at a computer one night and made you take an online test that would change your life? Finch experienced just that when his wife confronted him with the fact that she thought he might have Asperger Syndrome. He was 30 years old, his work life was successful, but after five years his marriage was in shambles. He “passed” the Asperger test, and found he was relieved to find an explanation for challenges like his “clinical strength inflexibility”, his meltdowns in social situations, and his inability or unwillingness to communicate in general. Finch decided to embark on a self-help plan by keeping a notebook of the things he needed to change, doing journaling, and having “performance feedback” with his wife. The story is at once hilarious, poignant, and demonstrates that marriage challenges can be mastered if both parties are equally committed. Unique and charming.
In many memoirs, the wider view of what a marriage has meant and how it worked does not happen until one loses a spouse. Hence the popularity of memoirs such as Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. For Jamison, who has written several brilliant books (An Unquiet Mind, Exuberance, and Night Falls Fast), the loss of her second husband was devastating. She married Dr. Richard Wyatt, a noted authority on schizophrenia, in 1994. He was diagnosed as having inoperable cancer fifteen years after they were married, and died in 2002. By any standards, it was a warm, loving marriage, challenged by Jamison’s long diagnosed bi-polar disorder, for which she was treated. Her mental illness stretched the bonds of their relationship many times, yet their marriage was rich and full, both professionally (both were doctors in the mental health field) and personally. Jamison’s portrayal of Wyatt is fully fleshed out–I felt like I had known him and lost a valued scientist and friend. And her journey after his death is nuanced and just as full, trying to keep mentally balanced while riding the tidal waves of her grief. Excellent!
Also recommended: Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill; Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages, by Phyllis Rose, Then Comes Marriage, by Robert Kaplan with Lisa Dickey.