Ah June weddings... stressed out brides, endless speeches and champagne toasts. With wedding season upon us and my own 25th anniversary on the horizon, I thought it might be fun to look at the theme of marriage in fiction.
Millions of pages have been written about romance, love affairs (tragic and otherwise), unrequited love, lost love and love found. But what of those who’ve committed to marriage? Of those who choose to lay their heads together night after night after night? What stories do they tell to show the ebb and flow of the married heart?
Writers’ have approached the subject in all its variations and often the evolving nature of long-term relationships is portrayed through life’s changing stages. There have been as many takes on the issue as there are people involved, from loving harmony to anxious infidelity to boredom to outright hostility.
Here are some of my favourites. Depending on where you sit on the subject, you may find some disturbing while a few (thank goodness) present marriage as a positive, no matter how unorthodox.
PORTRAIT OF A MARRIAGE by Nigel Nicholson
This book is based on a narrative written by writer Vita Sackville-West when she was 28 and was found by her son after her death many years later. It is a confession of sorts of her love for another woman and of her “dual nature” which she believes only her husband understood. Their letters to each other show their extraordinary love and the unique nature of a marriage that lasted 50 years. Unconventional but successful despite his many affairs with men and hers with women, theirs was a marriage based on total honesty, shared interests, respect and deepening love.
THE RAINBOW by D.H. Lawrence
The frank representation of sexuality in this novel caused a furor when it was published but is recognized today as one of the classics of the 20th century. Detailing three generations of an English family from the 1840s to the early years of the 1900s, Lawrence examines the passionate nature of his characters and the societal pressures that determine their lives, particularly the struggle to achieve growth and fulfillment within marriage. Way ahead of his time, Lawrence believed that a successful relationship or marriage should be based on equality and freedom in retaining individuality.
A CELIBATE SEASON by Carol Shields & Blanche Howard
Written as letters between a husband and wife with each writer taking one character, the two writers teamed up to plot the course of a rocky marriage. Written during a fall/winter season where the couple is separated by work, they opt to communicate by old fashioned letters vs phone and emails to save money and rekindle the romance of their 20-year marriage. As the months progress the letters become less frequent and more revealing and they begin to examine the slow demise of their marriage.
THE PAINTED VEIL by W. Somerset Maugham
I reread this book after many years and after seeing an excellent movie they made from it. After discovering his wife’s affair, a bacteriologist forces her to accompany him to rural China in the 1920s where he is recruited to fight a cholera epidemic. This harsh penance is at first brutal to bear but as they live and work together, she sees her husband differently and learns to love him. Beautifully descriptive without sentimentality, Maugham gets to the heart of the story clearly and concisely. A captivating story of the changing nature of a marriage.
ON CHESIL BEACH by Ian McEwan
Two young lovers eager to escape the hurts and confusion of their past marry. Naive, inexperienced and unable to express themselves, their timidity results in rejection and failure that they can’t overcome. It’s hard to think of another writer who can articulate emotions and describe a scene as if the reader could be one of the characters. But McEwan deftly portrays his characters’ feelings and thoughts and everything is understood. An amazing look at how one event can change an entire life.
FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen
This epic tale of a married couple, their children, lovers and neighbours, takes place over the course of a decade at the beginning of the 21st century. The writer takes the characters and peels back layer after layer until their very soul is bared and we know them better than our own partners. Shows us the joys and pains of marriage and how this couple ultimately survive through love. A remarkable story by an extraordinary talent.
MY YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING by Joan Didion
One of my favourite writers. A moving, emotional account of the first year after her husband of 40 years’ sudden death. This tragic event followed on the heels of Didion’s only daughter being put into a forced coma after succumbing to septic shock. As terribly sad as these two events are, the story is saved from utter despair by Didion’s writing and sense of humour. Profound and uplifting, this book will change the way you look at bereavement and the loss of a spouse.
THE WIFE by Meg Wolitzer
Known more now for the movie, this book is a scathing look at a husband’s desire for recognition and devastating disregard for his wife’s role in getting him there. Literary vanity, ambition and the value of men vs women are all on the chopping block as Wolitzer pulls back the curtain on a famous marriage of 50 years. A funny-sad look at how far women have come.
The topic of relationships will always be ripe fodder for writers and this small smattering of books show how truly intriguing the heart of a marriage can be. To all of you, married or otherwise, a toast to the struggle for love and its enduring resiliency!