I kind of want just to drop the one-line quip I posted in the comments below as my review, but we all know I'm totally incapable of shutting my face, so here goes nothing. The review was “At least two of the words in the title are wrong.” The title is A Happy Marriage: A Novel
The first word I have a problem with is “novel”. I watched with great schadenfreude the James Frey take-down for passing his fictions off as reality, and much of my evil glee centered on how self-aggrandizingly stupid & trite his life-changing experiences were purported to be. I got hugged by black people! In treatment! And it made me a better man! Bah, you suck. This doesn't commit that sin; it's called a novel. But it's very serious autobiographical nature is trumpeted all over the front and back flaps, all over the text – the wife's name is unchanged, and the husband is from the same odd ethnic mix as the author's. The author and the protagonist have the same early life history: published novelists by the tender age of 16 or 17; thirty year marriage; ugly death by cancer by the wife. I'm assuming the infidelity is the same too, at least insofar as there was one.
I'm not sure why this bothers me, and it certainly might not bother you. Getting peanut butter in one's chocolate sounds like a recipe for a tasty treat. And I pretty much know that even autobiographies – or memoirs, as they are trendily referred to these days – that aren't crafted out of grade-A bullshit are going to be simplified and fictional in some regards, and I'm okay with that. So, I should be happy that this doesn't purport to be fact. Maybe this is my dig: the trumpeting of its autobiographical reality seems to demand my sympathies, seems to collapse the difference between author
in ways that seem...um...unfair? manipulative? These words aren't exactly right. But it all messes with how I'm reading these ultimately fictional characters
, and it kept booting me out of the narrative.
This sort of leads into my next complaint. The phrase of the title, “a happy marriage”, seems deliberately to be riffing on the Tolstoy aphorism, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Okay, I grok you: happiness is not actually all the same, and sometimes it's not even happiness. The worth of a marriage maybe shouldn't be yard-sticked by the unhappinesses caused by the (probably) inevitable failures of us as human beings: infidelity, betrayal by our bodies, being stupid and insensitive to the people we love most. The sections dealing with Rebecca's just godawful experience with cancer were moving & had the hard crunch of lived experience, but while I found their relationship in this section touching & emblematic of the highest ideal of the married state – that one promises to care for another even through hell & cancer, and then actually does that – it can't be called happiness. It's the opposite of happiness; it's misery, but it's a misery predicated on love & honor, and not the trinket kinds of these things, but the real deal. That this incredible act of devotion could be carried out by people who are sometimes jerks, and really big jerks, makes it even more fine.
However. (Here it comes.) This is not about marriage, it's about a husband. Rebecca is not the protagonist; she is the wife. To this I say arrrrrrggghhh. I've got all kinds of bitches in place about Vanishing Wives and the way they are Given No Agency in cultural expectations of marriage & all, and this hit me squarely in the middle of that. And herein may lie my real problem with the sneak autobiography: because he is writing from his own experience, pretty much on a one-to-one scale, with only the names changed to distance a bit, Yglesias commits a pretty darn big gaff by purporting to talk about Marriage when he is really talking about Being a Husband. I think it's an honest mistake, but it's still a pretty big freaking mistake, imao.
Add in the fact that I really can't stand his prose, especially in the (seriously idealized) sections where he first meets Rebecca, and you've got a pretty potent recipe from me never finishing this book. It's possible I'm too sensitive to the marketing and packaging. I know that many authors have no or little say in what a book it titled, or in what goes on the front or back flaps. If this is the case, sorry Mr. Yglesias. As it stands, your book and I are breaking up.