Literature allows us to experience unfamiliar worlds and lives: we immerse ourselves in the stories of characters from other countries and other eras, and we walk in the shadows of those experiencing triumph or tragedy on scales we can only imagine. But great novels can also illuminate our shared experiences. If we're fortunate enough to spend a considerable number of years on the planet, almost all of us experience childhood, first love, a life of work, the search for a mate (or for mates), family, aging, and, finally, death. With these broad commonalities in mind, we continue our Life Stages series: we covered Coming of Age in our January/February 2011 issue, First Love in our May/June 2011 issue, and Careers in our Nov/Dec 2011 issue. We now turn to Marriage--the good, the bad, and everything in between. Though marriage often leads to family, we will look more specifically at Family Life in the next installment. We focus on contemporary writers from the mid-20th century on, and we divide our selections by decades. Our selections are by no means comprehensive; we present some beloved classics as well as novels that have been overlooked in recent years.
The Early 1900s
The Paris Wife (2011)
By Paula McLain (2011)
In this nuanced, balanced portrait of a marriage, Paula McClain reclaims Hadley Richardson's place as both wife to Ernest Hemingway and a woman in history. In 1920 Chicago, Hadley, then 28, sheltered and on the cusp of spinsterhood, meets Ernest--handsome, charismatic, and eight years her junior--and is immediately smitten. After a dizzying courtship and marriage, the two set off for glittering Jazz-Age Paris, where they join the Lost Generation of expatriate writers and artists. As Ernest befriends Gertrude Stein and the Fitzgeralds, among others, Hadley struggles to maintain her own identity. But their marriage starts to unravel after the birth of their child, and Ernest starts an affair with a woman who will become the second of his four wives. In this tale of passion, artistic inspiration, and betrayal, Ernest admits in his memoir, A Moveable Feast, "I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but [Hadley]." ([EXCELLENT] May/June 2011)
1920s and 1930s
Rambling Rose (1972)
By Calder Willingham
Calder Willingham, a Southern American novelist and screenwriter (The Graduate), wrote this fictional memoir of his small-town childhood in the Deep South during the Depression with nostalgia, but little sentimentality. Rose, an alluring, naive, and sexually uninhibited young woman, comes from Birmingham to join the Hillyer household as the family maid. But despite considerable sexual temptations by the husband, the Hillyers' marriage remains intact. A fictional view of the Depression years, a coming-of-age story, and, perhaps surprisingly, a view of virtue and fidelity in marriage, the novel was turned into a big-screen movie starring Robert Duvall, Diane Ladd, and Laura Dern (1991).
Mrs. Bridge (1958), Mr. Bridge (1969)
By Evan S. Connell
Before Evan S. Connell wrote Son of the Morning Star (1984), about George Armstrong Custer, he penned a now-classic portrait of a suburban marriage between the 1920s and the 1940s. Gently satirical and at times heartbreaking, the novels, which take place in a country-club district of Kansas City, Missouri, feature India Bridge, a repressed housewife; her workaholic lawyer husband, Walter; and their three children, who yearn for lives more modern than those of their conservative parents. Behind her Pollyannaish demeanor, Mrs. Bridge feels suffocated by her repressed existence; the status-conscious Mr. Bridge, by contrast, is joyless and emotionally distant. More than anything else, the novels together depict the emotional gaps and changing mores that accompany marriage and its expectations to create a picture of quiet desperation. The film: Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990), featuring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and directed by James Ivory.
The Chateau (1961)
By William Maxwell
William Maxwell, a New Yorker editor between the 1940s and 1970s, was also an award-winning author. Set in Europe just after the war, Maxwell's novel explores the haves and have-nots through the experiences of a young, middle-class American couple, Harold and Barbara Rhodes, who visit France for a four-month vacation. Although the couple arrives with enthusiasm, they lack understanding of the war-torn culture, and they bumble through their time at a guesthouse chateau in the Loire Valley. There's little in the way of plot; instead, Maxwell uses a Henry James-like lens to explore cultural differences, social relationships, human nature, and, of course, the way one otherwise very happy couple deals with such things.
The Amateur Marriage (2004)
By Anne Tyler
On the night of their 30th wedding anniversary, Pauline says to her husband, Michael, "I think it's been a fun kind of marriage." "It has not been fun," he replies. "It's been hell." And he walks out. The Amateur Marriage chronicles the six decades spanning their relationship's hesitant start, painful endurance, final dissolution, and effect on successive generations. At the outset of World War II, Pauline jumps off a streetcar to join an enlistment parade. Bruised, she runs into Michael's family's Baltimore grocery store for aid. Before they know it or each other, Michael and Pauline are engaged. Pauline knows it's not the right match, yet she can't bear to break off the engagement when the wounded Michael returns home from the war. Thus begins their "amateur marriage," full of promise but destined to fail. ([EXCELLENT] May/June 2004)
The Tortoise and the Hare (1954)
By Elizabeth Jenkins
In a new introduction to the work, Hilary Mantel writes: "Apart from a war, what could be more interesting than a marriage ... a long campaign, a grand game of strategy involving setbacks, bluffs and regroupings--a campaign pursued, sometimes until the parties have forgotten the value of the territory they are fighting over." Elizabeth Jenkins (occasionally compared to Jane Austen)...