“My most brilliant achievement was my ability to be able to persuade my wife to marry me.” (Winston Churchill)

A friend of mine got married last weekend, and most lovely it was too. But enough about them; it gives me an excuse for indulgence of an enduring crush (who I planned to marry when I was six –  with hindsight I suspect the age gap was insurmountable):

To celebrate I’ve picked two novels which explore the theme of marriage. Firstly, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (2011). Set at Brown University in the early 1980s, it tells the story of three undergraduates, Leonard, Madeleine and Mitchell, as they try and find their way through life, while realising that their academic and intellectual achievements have not prepared them in any way. As an English graduate, I particularly enjoyed Eugenides’ evocation and gentle ribbing of this area of study:

“That left a large contingent of people majoring in English by default. Because they weren’t left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical- because they weren’t musical, financially motivated, or really all that smart, these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they’d done in first grade: reading stories. English was what people who didn’t know what to major in majored in.”

Of course I disagree 🙂 Eugenides is very good a skewering the intellectual trends in academia, which at this time was semiotics, while not undermining idealistic Madeleine’s belief in ideas and search for meaning. Unfortunately “Madeleine’s love troubles had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.” and she finds the theories don’t really account for the messiness of real world relationships. In one pivotal scene, the writing of Roland Barthes is used to break her heart:

I Love You je-t’aime/I-love-you. As she read these words, Madeleine was flooded with happiness. She glanced up at Leonard, smiling. With his finger he motioned for her to keep going. The figure refers not to the declaration of love, to the avowal, but to the repeated utterance of the love cry. Suddenly Madeleine’s happiness diminished, usurped by the feeling of peril. She wished she weren’t naked.”

The Marriage Plot is comic but remains grounded in the three vulnerable characters trying to become the best versions of themselves. Once they leave university, the novel shifts from satirising academia to focus on the characters’ relationships with one another. Eugenides uses a typical romantic plot (no-one is in love with anyone who can love them back) to create a metafictional commentary on how romance and marriage have been presented throughout the ages, particularly in novels. If this sounds truly dreadful, rest assured the novel stops short of being too smug about its own cleverness, and what emerges in the second half is a truly sensitive portrait of mental illness.

 “That was when Leonard realised something crucial about depression. The smarter you were, the worse it was. The sharper your brain, the more it cut you up.”

Whether or not this is true, Leonard is both brilliant and extremely unwell, and the exploration of his bipolar disorder is non-sensationalist and balanced, showing the effect on Leonard and those around him; the price paid for something devastating which is no-one’s fault.

“it was as if her own heart had been surgically removed from her body and was being kept at a remote location, still connected to her and pumping blood through her veins, but exposed to dangers she couldn’t see: her heart was in a box somewhere, in the open air, unprotected.”

I didn’t find The Marriage Plot quite as effective as Eugenides’ debut The Virgin Suicides, and although I haven’t read Middlesex, his lauded second novel (it’s buried in a TBR stack somewhere…), I doubt this novel concerned the Pulitzer judges to the same extent. However, it is a novel with much to offer, and I recognised and cared about all the characters in it. The Marriage Plot plays with ideas and even destabilises itself with metafictional nods towards novels and novel writing, but never at the expense of a recognisable humanity.

“the novel had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance, In the days when success in life had depended marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had a subject to write about. The great epics sung of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later?”

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Pasta eating dogs melt even this non-romantic’s heart

Secondly, The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler (2004), which portrays the marriage between Michael and Pauline, from their courtship under the shadow of World War II through to old age. Their fledgling relationship is shown through the eyes of the small town where Michael has grown up:

“She had her read coat on, which is how they could all spot her from such a distance. They said ‘Michael! Look!’ and Michael turned at once in the right direction, although Pauline herself had not called out. When she came nearer they could see why. She had no breath left, poor thing. She was gasping and tousle-haired and flushed – really not her prettiest, but who in the world cared? She was holding out her arms, and Michael dropped his belongings and started running too, and when they collided he swooped her up so her feet completely left the ground, Everybody said ‘Ah’ in one long satisfied sigh – everyone except his mother, but even she watched with something close to sympathy.”

Once the war – and its accompanying heightened experience, drama and uncertainty is over, the marriage is shown through the eyes of the couple, who realise they are entirely mismatched:

“by nature, Pauline tumbled through life helter-skelter, while Michael proceeded deliberately. By nature, Pauline felt entitled to spill anything that came into her head while Michael measured out every word. She was brimming with energy – a floor pacer, a foot jiggler, a finger drummer – while he was slow and plodding and secretly somewhat lazy. Everything to her was all or nothing…while to him the world was calibrated more incrementally and more fuzzily.”

This being Anne Tyler, it is not a huge tragedy, but rather a psychologically astute portrait of two people and their family with the attendant hurt, frustration, disappointment, love and affection:

“Another time, Michael might have felt annoyed by this rouged and lipsticked version of the truth. Such concern for the looks of things even within the family! But today he was touched. It occurred to him that his wife had amazing reserves of strength, that women like Pauline were the ones who kept the planet spinning. Or at least, they made it appear to keep spinning, however it might in fact be wobbling on its axis.”

If you’ve read any of Anne Tyler’s 20 novels before, you’ll know what to expect in The Amateur Marriage: set in Baltimore, concerned with ordinary people leading ordinary lives, with no huge dramas. This is not a criticism, however. She is brilliant at well-observed detail, of the meaning found in small moments, of what we learn to live with and the solace imperfect human beings can give one another.

“He believed that all of them, all those young marrieds of the war years, had started out in equal ignorance…Then two by two they fell away, having grown wise and seasoned and comfortable in their roles, until only he and Pauline remained, as inexperienced as ever – the last couple left in the amateurs’ parade.”

To end, a little something for another friend who was also at the wedding, and who I think will be the next bride I see. She has an agreement with her partner for a certain man to be her celebrity allowance:

“Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book.” (Jane Smiley)

Hello you gorgeous creature.  Yes, you.  I’m talking to you.  You’re lovely.  Thank you for visiting my blog, I really appreciate it.  And I’m confident in my assertion that you’re lovely, because in the short time I’ve been blogging, I’ve been struck by what a great community the blogosphere (as I’ve encountered it) is.  Recently there’s been a lot of attention in the media given to trolls, and the very real havoc they can wreak.  While this atrocious, it’s also true that “Two Bloggers Disagree – Lively & Respectful Debate Ensues” is not a headline you’ll see anytime soon.  People behaving well is just not newsworthy.  So this week I thought I’d make the theme of my post comfort reading.  A cosy corner to celebrate the niceties of life, with you, my fellow bibliophiles and general all round good-eggs.  Pull up an overstuffed chair, wrap yourself in a quilt, keep the hot chocolate and cake within arm’s reach – let’s get cosy and settle down to some books!

Firstly, Emma by Jane Austen (1815, my edition  Wordsworth, 1992).   I chose this novel because I remember the first time I read it, once all the characters were introduced, thinking “well, I can see exactly how this is going to play out”.  And I don’t think I’m particularly clever or insightful, I think most readers would experience the same.  It’s not that it’s a badly written book, far from it, but just that nowadays we’re used to these sorts of plotlines (romantic story arc, some misunderstanding and confusion, resolution leading to reunited lovers) and I think there’s comfort to be gleaned from that predictability.  I’m not a big reader of crime fiction, but I imagine it’s a similar sort of deal – you get to walk away from the novel with the ends nicely tied up and equilibrium restored.  And that can be very comforting.  So let me introduce you to:

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

Emma is not necessarily all that likeable – she’s a spolit snob who thinks she knows what is best for people.  But Emma grows and matures throughout the novel and becomes more humble, and fundamentally has her heart in the right place, so it’s difficult not to warm to her.  The novel is resolutely domestic, as Emma concerns herself with her neighbours and plots to arrange romantic attachments.  The plot is slight, but Emma sees Jane Austen writing as a confident and accomplished author, and the story is delivered with great verve.  There are plenty of Austen’s aphorisms to enjoy:

“It was a delightful visit;-perfect, in being much too short.” 

“I always deserve the best treatment because I never put up with any other.” 

“One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.” 

I had a tutor who specialised in Austen, and told me she enjoyed her because she was such an absolute bitch, at odds with her rather twee image.  Certainly the portrayals of the vain, boorish characters pull no punches:

“Emma was not required, by any subsequent discovery, to retract her ill opinion of Mrs. Elton. Her observation had been pretty correct. Such as Mrs. Elton appeared to her on this second interview, such she appeared whenever they met again,—self-important, presuming, familiar, ignorant, and ill-bred. She had a little beauty and a little accomplishment, but so little judgment that she thought herself coming with superior knowledge of the world, to enliven and improve a country neighbourhood”

Ouch.  So if you fancy losing yourself in the domestic and romantic concerns of Regency England, just beware that all is not as cosy as it appears.  But Emma is still a comforting read, and one that is huge fun.

Secondly, A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler (Vintage, 1999). I haven’t read much by this prolific and much-loved author, only this novel and Breathing Lessons, so forgive me if I seem to be saying very obvious things to established Anne Tyler fans out there. I chose it because I found it comforting read, suggesting there is hope for all of us and people are capable of giving a great deal to one another as we all muddle through life.  Anne Tyler has observed in an interview that “very small things are often really larger than the large things” and this is what she concerns herself with, the small things that hold great meaning in our lives.  A Patchwork Planet tells the story of Barnaby Gaitlin, a man whose life is not where he wants it to be, but he’s not sure what he does want.  His family struggle to forgive him after he was caught in high school breaking into peoples’ homes to go through their things and read their mail.  His ex-wife has moved away and taken their rabbit-faced daughter with her.  He works for Rent-a-Back, providing odd jobs for the elderly in the neighbourhood. He feels he is not the good person others think he is:

“Oh, what makes some people more virtuous than others? Is it something they know form birth? Don’t they ever feel that zingy , thrilling urge to smash the world to bits? Isn’t it possible, maybe, that good people are just luckier people? Couldn’t that be the explanation?”

A Patchwork Planet is peopled with eccentric characters, Barnaby’s co-workers, clients and family. Tyler writes with warmth and acceptance for people in all their guises:

“Then Mrs Alford started sorting her belongings.  That’s always a worrisome sign.  For a solid week she had three of us come in daily – me, Ray Oakley, and Martine. (“Two men for the real lifting,” was how she put it, “and a girl so as to encourage the hiring of women.”) […] Half the time she called Martine “Celeste” which was the name of our other female employee, and I was “Terry”.

“It’s Barnaby, Mrs Alford,” I said as gently as possible.

“Oh! I’m sorry! I thought your name was Terry and you played in that musical group.””

The humour in A Patchwork Planet is gentle, and never at the expense of the characters. As Barnaby muddles his way through another year of his life, you’re left with the feeling that nothing’s perfect but it’s OK.  Sometimes it’s better than OK.  And we may all be alone, but we’re all in this together.  What’s more comforting than that?

Here are the books getting cosy, wrapped in a chunky woollen scarf I knitted (and got completely carried away with, it’s about 8 feet long, good job I’m tall):

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