Probably because it has been a tumultuous year for my marriage, the nuggets on marriage in some books I read recently made an impression on me, although the books are not about marriage per se. All of them are books I really enjoyed; I’d highly recommend them.
An Education by Lynn Barber: In 2009, a film based on this memoir was released and received enough publicity for me to be convinced that I would love it. Except when I started watching it, I couldn’t get through. One of the changes in me since I became a parent is that I find myself identifying with the parents’ point of view in movies. And in this film, I just could not imagine how the parents of a schoolgirl could support her carrying on, including going on overnight trips, with a man much older. Moreover, I found the unfolding relationship itself unbearable to watch, although I think the audience was supposed to find it romantic. I ended up abandoning the film quarter-way through.
In the book, everybody’s rationale is much better explained, both the parents and the protagonist. Also, this episode takes up only the first half of the book, which then moves on to the other great romantic relationship in her life, that of her husband. (It also goes into her life at Oxford and career ascension which were interesting as well). One of the things she said that got my attention was that she picked her almost entirely husband for his good looks. That was the main thing that attracted her.
These days, it’s supposed to be all about inner beauty. I remember a discussion on IHM’s blog where most people were hotly shaming those who focussed on such superficialities as appearance. Thing is, though, in a marriage that kind of attraction is a central thing. In the end, you normally have to sex with your spouse and while your feelings for the person do play an important role, at least for many women, it certainly helps if your partner is easy on your eyes.
It would be wonderful if the society we live in was filled with people who had vastly different ideas about what is beautiful, but unfortunately it turns out either due to socialisation or innate nature or both, there is a conventional idea of beauty that many people subscribe to. It is heartening to see some variation in what people find attractive and the force of our personalities, the way we project and dress ourselves, these things sway choices but if we want to think that surfaces don’t count, we’re kidding ourselves.
Barber says one of the things that spurred her marriage is that she gained such pleasure of just looking at her husband who even aged attractively. Admittedly, people do often change how they look with age (and not necessarily for the better) but I think it helps if you at least have a memory of someone you thought beautiful to go on with.
Brief Lives by Anita Brookner: The book ostensibly deals with a frenemy-type relationship between two women but what I found fascinating was the description of women of a certain age living alone. Weirdly enough, I found the descriptions of Fay’s solitary existence heartening even though it described many things I feared about living alone – the promise of a house to itself that loses its charm once realised, hours upon hours to be filled, weekends looming – maybe because by laying what might be bare, one knows what to expect. It was also interesting that a life that I found lonely and unfulfilling in my 20s would also apparently elicit the same feelings in an aging woman. Fay’s relationships with the men in her life was also interesting. She married, and quickly realised that partly due to her husband’s expectations and partly her own personality she was doomed to be an convenient adjunct and supporter. She found herself dreaming of a reprieve from the necessity of going through the motions with a person who had no real interest in her except for how she could be of service to him.
The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble: This would be “chicklit” if written in our times – a story celebrating the friendship between and adventures of three women, albeit about women in their 50s and very well written so as to give the reader a sense of the broader canvas in which these lives enfold. Obviously I loved it for the relationship between the three, how familiar the politics of their relationships were, and also the strength of their personalities and the unconventionality of their choices. Early on, the marriage of one of the women collapses. I found what her husband said to her interesting – he thought she was tired of him and waiting for a divorce and so eventually that’s what he drifted into. And why did he think this? Because the admiration and was support with which she interacted with him in the past had given way to dismissal. There is a telling paragraph about what goes through the husband’s head that were food for thought for me:
And now [he] was worn out by all that, he had come full circle, he wanted a proper wife who paid him attention, a wife who did not mock him and boss and tease and vanish. He had grown frightened of [her], over the years, of the [person] that he had helped invent. She had become knowing, prescient. She had spoken sharply, foreknowingly, of his own thoughts, of the thoughts and actions of his colleagues: she had treated them and him with scant respect, as though his world were trivial, superficial. Her own had seemed to her solid, deep, serious; once too often she had made him feel that his was hollow, time-serving, transient, peopled by boys playing grown-up power games, while she attached herself to the timeless, the adult. She had excluded him from her knowingness, had indulged him with titbits, in passing. She had sapped his energy: he had felt it begin to wane.
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: Some time ago MinCat forwarded me an article (which we have since tried to dredge up without success) about how a lot of contemporary literature is trying too hard and one of the examples cited was this book. There was an excerpt supposed to illustrate this point, and I found myself thinking: “Ooh I want to read this” which was clearly not the point the article was trying to make.
Last week, I got hold of Franzen’s latest magnum opus and whoa, loved it! First of all, I have no idea why it was cited in that article because it is straight up good storytelling, the writing is crafted but not incomprehensible by a stretch and it has elsewhere been both criticised and lauded for being almost Victorian in its realism.
There is a triangle at the centre of the relatonships under consideration but two points of this triangle are a husband and a wife and the entire thing is an examination of this dynamic, the falling in and out of love and the depths of despair this can bring and also the banal joys and figuring out if they’re enough. And also, there’s the parent-child relationship and how you can love you kids but they may completely misunderstand and then hate you. Ouch. But all in all unputdownable.