Reading with a Theme: Thorny Marriages

A while ago I happened to read a whole series of books about mothers. Since my return from holiday I seem to have been on a roll with books about marriages – I was going to say ‘difficult marriages’, but at least one of them is about a happy marriage… interrupted by death. Incidentally, it also seems to have been a bit of a catch-up with North American writers, as Anne Carson, Louise Penny and Maxime-Olivier Moutier are all Canadians, while two of the remaining authors are American.

Joan Didion and her family in Malibu in 1976. From back cover of the book.
Joan Didion and her family in Malibu in 1976. From back cover of the book.

Joan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking

Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The portrait of a 40 year marriage of true minds. Didion’s husband died of a heart-attack in 2003, and this is the searing memoir of her befuddlement, grief, sense of guilt and sheer madness of the year following her sudden loss. (At the same time, her daughter was in and out of hospital, in and out of a coma, so it was probably the hardest year of the writer’s life.) This may not be her most polished work stylistically, but it has a rawness and honesty about it which is very moving.

I’m not sure why this has been branded as pretentious or whining or self-pitying rants of a rich bitch. It shows how grief can drive us all mad, whether privileged or not, whether calm and collected or dramatic and hysterical. The author has also been accused of coldness, because she tries to present things in a detached way. This feels to me more like a deliberate strategy to remain calm, to try and understand, to analyse oneself. The polar vortex of memory that she tries to avoid by not going to places that were familiar to them: how can that be described as cold and unfeeling?

Anne Carson: The Beauty of the Husband


By contrast, Carson’s collection of poems all add up to an essay on beauty and truth, our search for perfection but our paradoxical human ability to put up with imperfection for a very long time. All in all, it presents the picture of a toxic marriage, a destructive relationship captured with true poetic flourish. Based on Keat’s assertion that beauty is truth, the poet then shows us just why the husband was anything but truthful, no matter how beautiful he was (and remained) in the eyes of the wronged wife.


Louise Penny: The Long Way Home


I’m already a confirmed Louise Penny fan, but this 10th book in the Armand Gamache/ Three Pines series is less crime fiction and more the story of a Quest: for a missing husband, for inspiration, for one’s true self, for the Holy Grail almost. I wrote a full review of it for Crime Fiction Lover, but from the perspective of marriage, it is the sad story of the dissolution of a loving long-term partnership when the insidious three-headed serpent of jealousy, envy and inadequacy makes its appearance. Clara and Peter Morrow are both artists, who met in college. Peter has always been the more successful artist with his carefully controlled, intricate paintings, while Clara was the wild and messy experimentalist. But when Clara’s star begins to rise, Peter finds it impossible to rejoice for her, as he becomes aware of his own artistic stagnation.


louise douglas your beautiful liesLouise Douglas: Your Beautiful Lies

Set against the backdrop of the miners’ strikes in Yorkshire in the 1980s, this is the story of Annie, a woman who is feeling trapped in a very correct but rather dry marriage of convenience, which has provided her with a comfortable lifestyle but has also isolated her from the rest of the community. When her old boyfriend (who had been convicted of manslaughter) is released from prison and shows up on her doorstep, trying to protest his innocence, she is at first reluctant to engage with him. But then she unravels rather spectacularly and becomes very reckless indeed… This book has an old-fashioned feel about it, as if it were set in the 1950s rather than the 1980s, and I struggled to empathise with Annie.

And, just in case you thought that only women can write about marriage, here is the most depressing one of all, written by a man but from a woman’s perspective.

scelleplombeMaxime-Olivier Moutier: Scellé plombé

The title roughly translates as ‘sealed with lead’, which was apparently an old method for food preservation – until the poisonous qualities of lead were discovered. This hints at the poisonous conjugal relationship and what an odd, unsettling story it is. The husband is struck by lightning on a golf course and is buried by his wife and children in secret.  Told entirely from the point of view of the wife, but addressed to her husband in a tone designed to humiliate and provoke, we then discover the story of their marriage, the rising ennui, the many daily cruelties and sarcasms, the lack of communication, the secret lives each partner found refuge in. A chilling disregard for the children emerges from this novel: it appears it’s not the marriage, but the hearts themselves which have turned to lead.


Finally, I almost hesitate to include Ann Patchett’s ‘This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage’ in this post, not because of the word ‘happy’ in the title, but because this collection of essays is about so much more than marriage: it is about creativity, travelling, a beloved dog, a burgeoning interest in opera music, family, friendships and, above all, writing. It also talks about the author’s first marriage and divorce, which led to many years of avoiding commitment to her second husband. In her characteristic clear-eyed, fluid style, she describes the compassion and understanding that she developed for all women who suffered in their marriages, whether they were able to get away from them or not.

My mother had divorced my father when I was four. Two years later she remarried. My mother and stepfather spent the next twenty years trying to decide whether or not they should stay together. While growing up I had never faulted her for the divorce, but I hated what I thought was her weakness. My mother didn’t want to be wrong a second time. She wanted to believe in a person’s ability to change, and so she went back and back, every resolution broken by some long talk they had that made things suddenly clear for a while. I wanted her to make her decision and stick to it. In or out, I ultimately didn’t care, just make up your mind. But the mind isn’t so easily made up. My mother used to say the more lost you are, the later it got, the more you had invested in not being lost. That’s why people who are lost so often keep heading in the same direction. It took my own divorce to really understand… I understood how we long to believe in goodness, especially in the person we promised to love and honor. It isn’t just about them, it is how we want to see ourselves…


22 thoughts on “Reading with a Theme: Thorny Marriages”

  1. I’m tempted by The Year of Magical Thinking, especially the rawness and candour you describe. I have one of Didion’s novels on the to-read pile so I’ll probably start there, but her memoir sounds fascinating.

      1. I had completely forgotten that you’d reviewed the Didion, Marina, but it’s really interesting to revisit your post now that I’ve read the book. Like Susan, I had not seen those criticisms of the book, but they strike me as being a bit wide of the mark. I couldn’t agree more with your comments on the rawness and candour in Didion’s writing. To my mind, her approach is analytical and questioning, but never cold. As you say, it feels like a deliberate strategy to remain calm.

        A friend of mine has just given me a copy of Blue Nights, but I’ll probably leave it for a few months just to have a bit of breather. It’s good to put some space between these types of books.

  2. I think most readers are fascinated by the portrayal of marriages – such a good subject, and every one different. I hadn’t heard of the Maxime-Olivier Moutier – it sounds fascinating but depressing. Is it available in English do you know?

    1. No, I don’t think it is – unless it has been translated in Canada somehow. I found it on the Canadian stand at a book fair in Geneva and it sounded rather intriguing. And nice, simple language, which is always a bonus for me in French.

  3. I’m glad you decided to include the Patchett, Marina. It’s an excellent collection. I’d not heard Joan Didion’s Year of Magical thinking described so witheringly – I can only assume whoever wrote that had suffered an empathy bypass.

    1. Quite a few comments like that on Goodreads. It’s a sad misinterpretation of diversity. As if the fact that you are white and middle class precludes you from any suffering.

  4. I recently lost my nephew Kyle in a house fire and Joan Didion brought some comfort as I read her beautiful book. Magical Thinking is nothing short of brilliant and that final paragraph about no eye on the sparrow and going with the change has been reread countless times. Thanks, Joan!

  5. Marina Sofia – What an interesting theme! And all of the books you’ve mentioned take a look at that theme from different directions and genres, which is even more interesting. I’m a Louise Penny fan, too, so I was glad to see you include that one. And Peter and Clara Morrow are such interesting characters… Thanks for sharing these.

    1. What was lovely about all of these books was that none of them were described as ‘Gone Girl’ material. It seems to have become shorthand for describing so-called ‘marriage thrillers’, but there is so much more variety and subtlety out there.

  6. I like the idea of reading on a theme, but I am seldom able to do it. I am not that far along in Louise Penny’s series (not unusual for me) but it is good to know this latest one is less focused on mystery. Sometimes those are very good. Guess it depends on the reader and their interests.

    1. Confession time: I’ve read Louise Penny out of order… on an as-finds basis, as it’s not easy to find over here. I haven’t read the one immediately preceding this, ‘The Beautiful Mystery’, which takes place in a monastery rather than in Three Pines.

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