Tag Archives: Marriage in fiction

Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen: If you like Elizabeth Strout or Ann Tyler…

Cover imageSometimes I cringe when I see the comparisons in publishers’ press releases but in Anna Quindlen’s case Scribner are spot on with Elizabeth Strout and Ann Tyler. She also shares with Strout a far smaller following here in the UK than she deserves, although I can happily put that in the past tense for Strout these days. I’d love to think that Alternate Side will do the same for Quindlen as My Name is Lucy Barton did for Strout. With its perceptive exploration of middle-aged marriage, it inhabits quintessential Quindlen territory.

Charlie is cock-a-hoop having secured a space in the parking lot of the Manhattan cul-de-sac where he and Nora have lived for a couple of decades. They’re a fortunate couple: owners of a coveted brownstone bought when such a thing was affordable; successful in their careers; parents of twins set on the road to a fulfilling adulthood. Yet there’s the odd niggle – Charlie would prefer to be a large fish in a much smaller pool than New York, Nora finds herself going elsewhere in her head when he talks about work and she’s not entirely happy in her own job as the development officer of a rich woman’s vanity project. Theirs is a tight-knit community, tolerant of George, its self-appointed overseer, who’s given to pushing instructions through their letter boxes about what other residents should and should not do. This privileged set of householders looks to the likes of Ricky, the handyman, to keep things ticking over smoothly. One day a shocking act of violence rocks the street, setting off fault lines in relationships that will undermine some irretrievably.

I read Miller’s last novel on holiday a few weeks ago, packing it safe in the knowledge that it would justify its weight. H read it too and, to my delight, is now a convert. Much as I enjoyed Miller’s Valley, Alternate Side is even better. Quindlen tells her story from Nora’s perspective with characteristic wit and keen observation, clicking marriage, privilege and the slide into middle age into focus.

The truth was that some of their marriages were like balloons: a few went suddenly pop, but more often than not the air slowly leaked out until it was a sad, wrinkled little thing with no lift to it anymore

Nora is a sympathetic character, acutely aware of her own privilege yet not entirely understanding how that might be perceived. She knows that without Ricky or Charity, their housekeeper, things would fall apart but she’s brought up short when faced with unease and anger when she steps over the line into their territory. There’s a pleasing thread of wry humour running through this novel which is also a love letter to New York, laced with a certain ruefulness at its makeover:

The city had become like that edgy girl in college, all wild hacked hair and leather, who showed up at reunion with a blow-dried bob and a little black dress, her nose-piercing closed up as if it had never existed

Another witty, absorbing and intelligent piece of fiction from Quindlen, then. If you haven’t yet read her work, I hope you’ll give her try.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: Love in the balance

Cover imageI’d heard nothing about An American Marriage before it arrived, its cover adorned with an Oprah’s Book Club selection tag which always reminds me of Jonathan Franzen’s pompous refusal to have anything to do with Winfrey’s endorsement of The Corrections, considering himself to be part of the ‘high art literary tradition‘. Well, la di da. Anyway, it certainly didn’t put me off nor Michael Chabon who also rated it highly as did Amy Bloom, one of my favourite writers. Tayari Jones’ novel lays bare a marriage in the first flush of love when the husband is wrongfully imprisoned.

Roy and Celestial are visiting his parents in small town Louisiana. They met briefly when she visited her best friend Andre in college but their relationship began properly four years later. Roy is a publishing rep, easy, charming and very successful at what he does while Celestial is a doll maker whose work is just beginning to catch the art world’s eye. They’re an attractive young couple, bright successful and in love, part of Atlanta’s growing black middle class. Celestial is a little nervous about the visit, never feeling she quite measures up to her mother-in-law’s exacting eye. Roy has booked them into a local hotel much to her relief. When he meets a woman at the ice machine, her arm in a cast, they briefly chat and he helps her to her room, opening her door for her before returning to Celestial. In the early hours of the morning, the police burst into their room, hauling Roy off to the station where he is accused of rape and later sentenced to twelve years in prison. Jones’ novel explores the fallout of this awful calamity.

Jones unfolds her story from both Roy and Celestial’s points of view with occasional interpolations from Andre. Married for just eighteen months, they’re still very much caught up in each other. Roy is a confident, slightly brash young man from a respectable blue-collar background while Celestial has enjoyed the privileges of a wealth, a divide captured well by Jones in their very different voices, particularly Roy’s: If my childhood were a sandwich, there would be no meat hanging off the bread. Racism, class and marriage come under the microscope as do absent fathers and attitudes towards women which may sound a little ambitious but it’s all tightly controlled and smoothly executed in this powerful novel which avoids the saccharine. Lots to talk about here for book groups – I’m not surprised Oprah plumped for it and I’m sure Jones was more than happy that she did.

Ties by Domenico Starnone (translated by Jhumpa Lahiri): Three sides of a marriage

Cover imageI seem to have reviewed several books about marriage in the first few months of this year – from the comparatively happy Wait for Me, Jack, to the decidedly bleak First Love, to the seemingly inextricable entanglement of A Separation – each one very different from the other, as are relationships of course. Domenico Starnone’s Ties is about another marriage, first broken then apparently reconciled. I’d have been attracted by it anyway but when I found out that it was Jhumpa Lahiri’s first piece of translation I had to read it having been intrigued by In Other Words, her memoir about her love affair with the Italian language.

Vanda and Aldo have been married for well over four decades. They live in a comfortable apartment in Rome with a view of the Tiber. They married in their early twenties and have two children, Sandro and Anna. Twelve years into the marriage, when Sandro was nine and Anna five, Aldo confessed his infidelity with Lidia, a passing fancy or so he thought. Furious, Vanda threw him out, lambasting him for his betrayal and eventually winning full custody of their children. Four years later, Aldo began to feel that he’d let his children down, resuming some sort of relationship with them and eventually proposing a rapprochement with Vanda. Reconciliation came at a high price: Vanda commandeered the moral high ground while Aldo lay low, accepting whatever punishment was doled out to him, quietly continuing along his path of infidelity. Their children grew into unhappy adults: Anna, filled with bitter resentment and determined not to have children; Sandro charming all and sundry, leaving a trail of ex-partners and children in his wake. Things come to a head when Vanda and Aldo return from their summer break to find their apartment ransacked and their cat missing.

Vanda and Aldo’s marriage feels very much of its time: Vanda finds herself financially dependent on Aldo, keeping house and looking after the children while Aldo is surprised at her angry reaction to his infidelity, assuming that she will tolerate his self-expression in the new era of sexual liberation. Starnone cleverly structures his novel to reflect the repercussions of their actions. First there are the angry letters from Vanda to Aldo during their separation, so filled with fury that they feel like a smack round the head. This short, very sharp, section is followed by Aldo’s version of events as he searches for photographs of Lidia tucked away for years but now missing in the disorder of the wrecked apartment. The third brief section offers Anna’s point of view, filled with bitterness at the behaviour of her parents and its apparent acceptance by her brother. Each of these narratives is in the first person making them all the more powerful. Starnone deftly switches perspectives, reflecting his characters’ point of view through language, from Vanda’s viscerally furious letters to the slightly puzzled, faintly martyred tone of Aldo’s musings. What’s missing is Sandro’s version which left me feeling that the novella was incomplete. That said it’s an extraordinarily powerful piece of work, elegantly slim but delivering a sucker punch.

A Separation by Katie Kitamura: Ties that can’t be unbound

Cover imageLast month I posted a review of Addison Jones’ Wait for Me, Jack, a novel about a long marriage which survived a multitude of difficulties, the premise of which I found fascinating. As you can tell from the title, Katie Kitamura’s A Separation is the other side of that coin, a marriage that doesn’t endure. Not a subject uncommon in fiction in either case but what makes Kitamura’s novel particularly interesting is that it’s about a woman whose estranged husband is missing in the Peloponnese. Their separation has been kept secret from all but her new partner.

Unable to contact her son, Isabella calls his wife, a little surprised to find that she is not with Christopher in Greece where he’s supposedly researching his unfinished book. Our unnamed narrator finds herself agreeing to search for her husband while withholding the knowledge of their separation from his mother. Once there, no efforts are made to track Christopher down. Instead, the narrator contemplates her marriage, Christopher’s many infidelities and her relationship with her new partner while observing the staff at the off-season hotel where her husband has been staying, speculating about the likelihood of a relationship between Christopher and the receptionist who seems oddly hostile towards her. After three days she decides to explore a little, engaging a driver who clearly has hopes for a future with the receptionist. When what has happened to Christopher becomes clear his parents are summoned and the narrator must decide what her role is to be. It seems that the bonds she had planned to break irrevocably are more insoluble than she had imagined.

Kitamura’s novel is written entirely from the narrator’s point of view. All events and observations are filtered through the lens of her imaginative speculation. She’s firmly in the unreliable school, interpreting events and relationships from the barest of facts: some of her deductions prove uncannily accurate so that we begin to trust her judgement while some are undermined by subsequent observations. Her relationship with Christopher’s parents is sharply drawn as she picks her way delicately through territory already thorny even before the (still undisclosed) separation. The complexities of marriage are carefully dissected – the narrator’s just five years in length, Mark and Isabella’s decades long – and the many, varied and unexpected ways in which couples become bound together explored. Kitamura’s style is oddly old-fashioned at times: formal and detached yet extraordinarily effective. Our narrator finds herself both an observer, looking back on her relationship with her self-absorbed husband, and a participant in the dramatic turn events have taken. It’s an absorbing novel, if discomfiting, with nothing so simple as a clean resolution. I suspect I’ll be turning it over in my head for some time.

Wait for Me, Jack by Addison Jones: Marriage and how to survive it

Cover imageRegular readers of this blog will know that I have a thing about books and their jackets. Without the right jacket, readers can be disappointed – promised something that wasn’t delivered through no fault of the author – and writers can be let down, not reaching as many readers as they should. This particular jacket, I’m pleased to say, fits its book like a glove. Addison Jones’ novel is the story of a marriage contracted in 1952: Jack is about to playfully pull the laughing Milly into what they hope will be the nice warm swimming pool of married life. Sixty years later, things may not look quite so sunny but they’re still together until one of them goes.

Jacko meets Billie when he’s twenty-four and she’s on the cusp of twenty-two. He’s the new copywriter at Perkins Petroleum Products, his eye already on more literary pursuits when he’s not running it over every attractive woman who comes within sight. She’s a typist, thinking about the kind of man she might marry and dismissing the newbie across the desk as too cocky by half. By the end of the Friday on which they meet, these two will have agreed to a drink together almost by chance rather than design. It’s the first step on the road to a long marriage – sometimes happy, often challenging. Jacko will become Jack, too nervous to put his new colleagues right when he finds himself offered a job at a San Francisco publishing house, and Billie will revert to Milly to save her youngest son Willy a life of constant embarrassment. They’ll weather infidelity, separation, the death of a child and the acceptance of a sibling’s children into their family until they reach the sheer hard graft of old age when one of them will be left behind.

Beginning with their first meeting in 1950, contrasted sharply with the day the couple are finally parted in 2014, Jones tells the story of Jack and Milly’s marriage backwards. From snapshots to longer episodes, each chapter reverses time by several years, neatly shifting perspective between husband and wife in an intricate reconstruction of their marriage. The narrative is a little fragmented in the way that memories are but it’s all beautifully done, anchored by recurring motifs: Milly’s grey honeymoon dress, Jack’s musings about his first love. This is no soft focus, romantic view of marriage. In many ways Billie and Jack are an ill-matched couple, neither of them quite what the other expected or thought they were, but they stick it out, always finding some love left no matter how close they are to the bottom of the barrel. Jones’ writing is perceptive and often very witty: ‘It had been such a long, bloody battle’, thinks Jack at the fiftieth anniversary party their children throw for them; he’s ‘a good man, with a bit of mid-life nonsense on his CV’ is Milly’s charitable summing up of Jack’s philandering. They’re a couple very much of their time: he forges ahead into the world, setting up as a successful small publisher funded by her inheritance, while she stays at home to look after the kids, always feeling a bit left behind in the competition that their marriage sometimes becomes. It’s an engrossing, utterly gripping novel, beautifully bookended by the repetition of Jack and Milly’s first meeting. It’s whetted my appetite for something similar set at a later date. Any suggestions?

Conrad and Eleanor by Jane Rogers: Absence makes the heart grow fonder

Cover imageThis is the second novel I’ve read in a year in which traditional gender roles are reversed within a marriage – Andrew Miller’s The Crossing saw Tim decide to stay at home and look after their child while Maud continues her work in clinical research – and I’ve since read a third, Sarah Moss’ superb The Tidal Zone (review to follow soon). Three in a year might seem a high score but you’d think over a decade and a half into the 21st century it would be a more ubiquitous and therefore unremarkable theme. Coincidentally, Jane Rogers’ Eleanor – like Maud – is engaged in medical research as is Conrad. The difference between them is that while Eleanor is a star in her particular sphere, Conrad’s work has stalled.

When Eleanor returns from spending the weekend with her lover she‘s expecting to find Conrad at home, back from his conference in Munich. At first she’s almost relieved, setting about making the house looked lived in despite the fact that Conrad is all too well aware of Louis. As the hours pass, anxiety slips in. Eleanor speculates about Conrad’s absence – perhaps he met someone at the conference, maybe he has his own affair to distract him upsetting as that may seem. The truth is very different: Conrad has fled Munich, convinced he’s seen the young animal rights activist who’s been stalking him, and headed for Rome. Spooked and anxious, he gets off the train in Bologna, worried that Maddy has seen him boarding it. With no suitcase and very little money, he books into a hotel, roaming the Bologna streets aimlessly for several days. One evening lost, feverish and hallucinating he is saved by the kindness of a stranger who takes him in. Eleanor and Conrad spend their time apart revisiting memories of parenthood, thinking about the role each has played in the other’s life and how they have arrived at a point in their relationship where they are so far apart.

Through Eleanor and Conrad’s alternating narratives, Rogers presents a nuanced portrait of a marriage in which traditional male/female roles are upended. Eleanor is intensely involved in her work while Conrad much preferred taking care of their four children when they were young, pushed into his organ transplant research by Eleanor and increasingly unhappy in it. Eleanor’s relationship with her children is distant, Conrad’s close. Neither of them talk to each other. Conrad’s abrupt absence and the crisis it precipitates forces Eleanor to reassess their relationship but Rogers resists any fairy tale ending, instead offering her readers an entirely plausible resolution. The novel’s secondary theme of animal experimentation is neatly stitched in, with arguments deftly rehearsed on both sides. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing read. Not the first novel by Rogers I’ve read but it’s prompted me to think I should seek out more.