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Two novels with marriage in the title

October 2, 2010

I was going to title this post, Two novels about marriage, but that seemed annoyingly reductive. The novels in question, A Happy Marriage, by Rafael Yglesias and The Story of  a Marriage, by Andrew Sean Greer, are both about marriage, as is signaled in the titles. They are also both contemporary, mid-sized (250-350 pages), and would fall within a rather loose definition of realistic fiction (though The Story of a Marriage pushes at the boundaries). What I’m interested in, though, is how they’re different.

“He had ordered her in. While he waited for the start of Saturday Night Live on his new Trinitron (what vivid colors and definition, what bliss of technology!), he had ordered in the Dream Girl he didn’t know he had dreamed until her great blue eyes, streaming tears from December’s cold, examined him with a startled and amused stare. The deliveryman was a close friend, the half-hated Bernard Weinstein who, with typical gracelessness, mumbled their names at the floor, ‘Enrique–Margaret. Margaret–Enrique” (1).

“We think we know the ones we love. Our husbands, our wives. We know them–we are them, sometimes; when separated at a party we find ourselves voicing their opinions, their taste in food or books, telling an anecdote that never happened to us but happened to them. We watch their tics of conversation, of driving and dressing, how they touch a sugar cube to their coffee and stare as it turns white to brown, then drop it, satisfied, into the cup. I watched my own husband do that every morning; I was a vigilant wife” (3).

The first lines from each novel, A Happy Marriage and The Story of a Marriage respectively, introduce completely different tones, different narrative voices and intents, and do an excellent job of indicating how each novel will continue. I have to confess here, though, that both openings initially put me off, causing me to stop and wonder whether I really wanted to continue reading.

The lines opening the first novel felt weirdly cliched and at the same time overly real. Did I really want to get to know this Enrique and what he thought  of Margaret? The lines from the second novel felt self-consciously literary, a heightened, stylized, story-telling voice that took itself very seriously. Not only were they different in style or voice; the narrators introduced in the lines I quoted had different ways of looking at and understanding the world but I couldn’t relate to either of their perspectives. I can’t imagine having a potential lover brought to me like take out. And I’ve never found myself voicing my husband’s opinion at a dinner party.

And yet I kept reading. I was intrigued by both novels, by the territory, so to speak, that they were taking on.

I had picked up the Yglesias book because I’d heard the author interviewed on the radio and had been struck by a comment he made about autobiographical fiction. Essentially, his contention was that readers always assume that novels include autobiographical content, so why not write a novel that was largely autobiographical. I learned from the interview that A Happy Marriage tells the story of Yglesias’ own marriage, which ended when his wife of twenty-five years, the Margaret of the opening, died of cancer. In the novel, he moves between the first days of their relationship and the last. Because I, also, am writing a novel in which death plays an important role, I thought it would be interesting to see how another writer handled it.

I’d heard about Andrew Sean Greer’s book on and off since it came out.  He’s a San Francisco writer, and the novel is set here, albeit in the 1950s, as is part of mine. The only other thing I dimly recalled was that the husband in the marriage might be gay. (Greer, interestingly, says that his fiction is never based on things that have happened in his life, though the plot of the story is related to something his grandmother once told him.)

While I did not end up falling in love with either book, I think both authors accomplished what they set out to do, fulfilling the terms introduced in those first few sentences.

Greer’s novel is indeed a “story.” The retrospective narrator, Pearlie, uses a heightened, tale-telling tone throughout the book. “It was 1953. It was a Saturday. Four years of happy marriage had passed, and the aunts were still in our lives. They’d grown stouter over time, and somehow their sharp-chinned heads seemed huger than ever, Duchesses from Alice in Wonderland, fussing with their enormous hats as they sat telling me a story at our kitchen table” (18). Though the novel is realistic in its themes and the overall content (child sick from polio, bisexual husband, race and war), the style, as signaled by the repetitive syntax of those first two sentences, by the way the aunts are described as over-sized, fairytale characters, along with the overt nod to Lewis Carol’s story, is taking the reader away from that realism and into somewhat different territory.

This is never more clear than in the last sentence, actually a fragment, of the first part of the book: “Not for colored girls like me” (57). Up to that point, the narrator has told us that her husband is beautiful, that his former lover is blond, that their son has hazel eyes. But the fact that both the narrator and her husband are African-American has been kept carefully hidden. Looking back, of course, there are clues, including the overt, “It’s hard for the colored, too” (41), Pearlie’s response to her neighbor Edith’s story of a Chinese family being excluded from a housing development. But because of the context, in a first reading one would never conclude that Pearlie is speaking of herself.

It’s interesting to me that Greer chose a retrospective narrator who, while she “knows” how the story ends, hides essential pieces of information. I imagine that he did this in order to keep the reader reading, looking for more clues, perhaps also to get us to question the assumptions we make. In an interview, he says that he added the fact of the main characters being black because it gave the story more depth. I enjoyed the fairytale details (a dog that can’t bark, a castle-like amusement park, and many others), which added to the stylized tone of the novel. But all of these devices I enjoyed from a distanced, intellectual perspective.

The ending, to my surprise, moved me emotionally. The narrator and her husband, late in their marriage, discover that they have lived for years with a serious misunderstanding: the narrator thought her husband wanted to leave her for a previous, male lover and she tried to help that happen, or at least didn’t stop it. The husband, who doesn’t leave, reveals at this late point that he feels he let her down by not leaving, that it was what she wanted. (She would have gained financially.) Because of the silence on both of their parts, both when the incident occurred and throughout the subsequent years of their marriage, a gulf separates them on an essential matter related to their love and value, or lack thereof, for each other. “We think we know the ones we love” (228). When this line is repeated on one of the last pages of the novel, it has lost its stylized, literary feeling and sounds, simply, like the truth.

For me, the difference in the ending, why it had an emotional impact while most of the rest of the novel did not, is twofold: first, I believe that this silence could happen in a marriage, has happened in marriages, so when the general line comes in, it carries the weight of truth in a way that the opening does not–the opening is lightweight, all language, trivial examples, and no story, no content to back it up. But, and this is equally important to me, the misunderstanding is revealed (and the generalization repeated) at the time that it is revealed to the narrator; it isn’t something the narrator holds onto and tells the reader (like the fact that she is black) when it will have more impact. It feels less manufactured, and therefore, closer, more emotional.

It sounds like I’m making an argument against the form that Greer chose for his novel. Perhaps to some extent I am. But not completely, because I did enjoy that aspect, and often do appreciate novels that have some meta-layer, a signal or wink from the author that lets me know that he, in the case of Greer, shares in the recognition that this is a constructed fiction. Maybe instead I’m arguing that if it had been toned down at the beginning, and if certain moves (like withholding the race) had been avoided, the “literary” hand that kept me at arm’s length would not have been so forceful. I would have liked to come in closer.

In many ways, what Yglesias is doing in his novel is the opposite of what Greer does, and because I’m a picky reader, I’m not completely happy with his choices either. Yglesias’ novel continues in an almost hyper-realist style, which, coupled with the knowledge that the novel is autobiographical, gives it a feeling of intense immediacy. Sometimes this is uncomfortable. We get repeated examples, with intimately described details, of the main character Enrique’s inability to maintain an erection and have intercourse with Margaret for the first time. It was sort of great (so this is what it feels like to be a man in this situation) but in the end I felt it was a case of TMI–too much information. It didn’t help that the “climax” of the novel involved, finally, Enrique’s success in making love to Margaret. Similarly, the reader is privy to what feels like (though of course isn’t) every last detail about Margaret’s dying body, the tubes and bags and fluids therein. I could have gotten the picture, and the point, without reading as many details, as frequently.

But we also get human emotion at its most poignant, and because I’ve only read this one version of the novel, I can’t say whether a scene like the one that follows is in some way predicated upon all the details we get in the lead up.

In this heartbreaking conversation that Enrique overhears, Margaret says goodbye to her mother.

“And Margaret, her voice liquid with love, was talking too, not over her mother, rather in harmony. ‘That’s because of you, Ma. I learned how to be a mother from you–‘

‘No, no,’ Dorothy was saying. ‘You raised them your own way…’

‘Ma, Ma, Ma,’ Margaret called out, as if Dorothy had her back turned to her and she needed her attention. ‘Ma, please listen…’

‘What, darling?’ Dorothy seemed to have made her voice even more gentle, all of her anxious shrillness gone, replaced with breathless ardor…’

‘I learned from you. Everything I know about being a mother I learned from you. You were my hero, Ma. You were always my hero'”(232).

Neither of the novels was fully to my taste. But both were interesting to read, interesting to think about and contrast with each other. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them widely, but I would, taking into account the interests and tastes of a reader, recommend them to some.

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