Not exactly a Valentine Day story, A Separation stars a wife in a marriage that’s already failed — except that the husband’s parents have not been told. When the husband disappears on a solitary trip to Greece, she is asked by her mother in law to investigate and travels there to uncover the sad truth. There’s very little action in the book, mostly reflections on herself, the marriage, and inspired observations of the locals and her in-laws. If you like slow-moving, introspective literature, this one’s for you.
I did enjoy some of the insightful rumination about the various characters, whether the tightly controlled father in law or the receptionist who perhaps, definitely, had an affair with her husband, But navel gazing is not my thing
Esther Perel claims that affairs can have positive consequences, but judging from the many dozens of stories of intense pain, destruction, and resentment contained in The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity (stories contrasted with only a handful of positive ones), it seems that infidelity continues to be a very bad idea. The strength of the book seems to be more in the willingness to take an honest look at the taboo, and explore the mindset of both affair participants and victims almost clinically, without judgment or preconceptions.
Eli Finkel is married, mostly happily it seems, he is a psychology professor, and he also appears to be a big nerd. His book, The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work, rests on the interesting premise that modern mores may load too much on marriage, namely that expecting our spouses to be companions, lovers, best friends, co-parents, and also boosters of our self-growth may simply be unrealistic. I’m tempted to agree.
That said the book starts by quoting Eat, Pray, Love (yikes), uses charts that any academic should be ashamed of (with more non-zero scales than Tufte himself can shake a stick at), relates experiments that are so specific that I doubt they show anything significant about anyone’s marriage, dips all too frequently into self-help silliness (although he makes some interesting reframing suggestions to avoid reflexive blaming), and relies heavily on the Maslow pyramid of nonsense (double yikes!)
But that one idea, yes, is quite useful!
My Lovely Wife in the Psych in the Psych Yard is the memoir of a man whose wife had several episodes of severe breakdowns, each involving lengthy hospitalizations, uncertain prognoses, and tremendous burdens on him as he tried to care for her and their son. It’s a weighty subject matter, and the author does not avoid the horrors of mental illness, the weaknesses of the psychiatric medical system, or the hardships on caregivers. He gives us an honest recounting of a very hard time, and we can only admire his pluck, and his wife’s.
The hero and narrator of Standard Deviation is the mildly confused husband of a pure extrovert, once married to a very contained professional woman, and parent of a middle-schooler with Asperger’s. The novel tells of the family’s adventures as the bubbly mother invites various friends and strangers to be their guests for lengthy stays, gets her son into a mysterious origami club, befriends the ex-wife, and has various marriage-damaging adventures. All the while, the husband observes, and worries (and cooks!). There are some hilarious passages, including a stay at an origami convention and various private school charity functions, but the general tone is more subdued and focused on how surprising spouses can appear to each other, years into a marriage.
Swimming Lessons is the story of a woman who unwisely marries her much older college professor, dooming herself to a life of subservience and betrayal. The story is told, very cleverly, through short notes hidden by her in the many books of her husband’s before she mysteriously disappeared many years ago. (The contemporary story, of her daughters coming back home to look after their aging father, holds little mystery or interest and is centered on a classic conflict between elder and younger daughter.)
I found the book to be immensely depressing. Do we need another novel about sweet young things being seduced into marrying older, callous men? You may have a tougher constitution than I have.
Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage is a memoir that’s really a reflection about time and is full of wonderfully observed details. How minute body language changes tells her that her husband is rattled by a surprise encounter, how her aunt’s china symbolizes her happy engagement, how successful people may have amassed truly awful report cards, how we can wonder about a path not taken. It will make you wonder about your own choices.