So… how many weddings are you invited to this year? We’re about to open wedding season, and as you watch your friends and relatives (and possibly even yourself) get hitched, it’s a good time to think about both the positives and negatives of pledging yourself to another person. Will you grow and change for the better, together? Or will you lose yourself? As the two novels and one memoir in this week’s book club amply prove, marriage can be a refuge and source of strength… or it can be a source of stress and turmoil. Read on for the joys and pain that can come from the biggest commitment that many of us will make.
1. Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny ($10): Standard Deviation, the first novel from an accomplished short story writer, shows us the difference between a marriage that works and a marriage that doesn’t, but it also shows that any relationship has challenges. Graham Cavanaugh had a stressful first marriage to Elspeth, but now his life is much better with his long-term relationship with Audra. Audra is the light of his life, but also the life of the party, which can be more than a little exhausting. Graham finds himself both appreciative of and tired by his booming social life with his spontaneous wife, and the “parallel universes” they seem to inhabit; he can’t help but wonder whether he’s made an excellent choice and the grass always looks greener on the other side, or if the grass actually wasn’t greener, and he’s made a huge mistake.
What makes all of this worse is that Audra has decided to become friends with Elspeth, which seems to Graham to be unnecessary and potentially dangerous. The trials and tribulations faced by Audra and Graham (and their 10-year-old son, Matthew, who has Asperger’s and is a whiz at origami) include your standard slate of minor marital issues, but are all handled with grace and aplomb by the delightful and relatable characters, who, just like the rest of us, make it up as they go along.
“This was marriage: you started out thinking you’d married the most interesting person in all the world and twelve years later, your head was full of useless hair facts. Of course, there was other stuff in there — some milestones, having a baby, buying a house — but that was basically the essence of it,” writes Heiny. Wry observations like these, plus a lovably loopy cast, makes this a fun read about the relationships that define us.
2. Ruthless River: Love and Survival by Raft on the Amazon’s Relentless Madre de Dios by Holly Conklin FitzGerald ($16): It’s been said by many that true love can get you through the worst trials. A 2006 study at the University of Virginia, for example, discovered that women in happy, committed relationships felt measurably less anxiety and pain when enduring electric shocks to the ankle simply by holding their partner’s hand. Adversity can bring out the best or worst in a marriage, and this true story shows that Fitzgerald and her husband certainly had their share of adversity early on.
In 1973, Holly and Fitz FitzGerald were in the middle of a year-long world-traveling honeymoon (that they were documenting for Fitz’s newspaper) when disaster struck. The couple was lucky to survive a terrifying plane crash but found themselves on their own in a remote penal colony in Peru. There was no real way to get home except a small raft, a balsa wood construction of only eight by 16 feet. Setting out by themselves with no way to contact help and no food, they are forced to ford hundreds of miles of river to get to civilization, combating starvation and piranhas.
“Slowly, the Bolivian jungle is swallowing us alive,” FitzGerald writes, as she attempts to capture every moment of the journey. “Struggling to sit up on the maroon nylon sleeping bag, I lean over Fitz. He lies on his side, his back to me. I touch him to see if he’s breathing. He does the same to me when he wakes first, I think, though I’ve never dared to ask.” Starvation and peril don’t seem likely candidates for romance, but she makes it clear that it was their love that got them through an otherwise horrifying ordeal.
3. Vanishing Point by EV Legters ($15): While a loving marriage can provide buoyancy in an otherwise sinking situation, there are marriages that do nothing but drag those involved down. Letgers’ mournful novel details one of these terrible marriages — strained, distant, and rife with emotional abuse and betrayal. Angela Dunnewald and her husband Ross have a broken marriage of almost 20 years; Ross is rarely present, and when he is, he’s self-involved and sometimes even cruel. Angela feels trapped; though she leads a life of relative privilege, her life as a housewife is also relatively sheltered and her social interactions are many but superficial. Suddenly, however, she crosses paths with carpenter Daniel, which sparks both a renewed interest in life and an affair.
“When Ross is gone, and he’s often gone, nerves surface, disorganization, and a sort of self-loathing. And this: During the first moments Ross is out the door, she’ll feel weightless, free, and open to possibility.” Angela’s world changes with Daniel’s presence; she becomes more intent on caring for her own needs and less intent on serving the interests of Ross and those of her best friend, Lydia the spirited socialite. She begins to pay attention to her aspirations of artistic expression, painting and even starting a studio.
Meanwhile, she has to combat her guilt over the affair, not wanting to be the one to formally break their vows: “She’s not afraid of Ross and never has been; she’s afraid for him. She senses he could — someday will — disintegrate, and she never wants to be the reason.” Through spare yet descriptive language, Legters sharply paints a picture of a woman who has become unmoored, while dropping little satirical barbs about Angela and Ross’s privileged community, like, “Only a few women of the garden club members still touch their own soil.” Keeping to one’s own soil in this community seems to be no mean feat.
What books are you wedded to? Tag us in your next committed read @BritandCo.
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