Friday, August 7, 2009

Till Death Do Us Part? . . .

Despite the rash of rash weddings that the summer seems to bring, I'm usually more interested in reading about how couples make it through in the longterm rather than how they first got together. So, for better or worse, I really enjoyed these three fictional examinations of the modern North American marriage.

Richard Russo for me, is one of the most dependable writers I know and I write that as the highest compliment. I never have to second guess him. With every novel he draws us into this completely real world with characters that we understand and emotional situations that gnaw at our empathy because we've all experienced in varying degrees the same thing. Or we know we will in the future. Plus, he is so, so funny. His latest novel That Old Cape Magic, is one of his best. It's really the story of two marriages, dissected as our hero travels to two weddings, a year apart. Griffin's parents were bitter, unhappy academics stuck in the mid-west when both longed for Ivy League careers and a permanent house at Cape Cod. Instead they had to settle for short holidays each year at the Cape where inevitably things never lived up to expectations. Divorce was inevitable. Griffin is now middle-aged, happily married and driving to the wedding of his daughter's friend. In the trunk are the ashes of his father waiting to be scattered, but as he revisits his old childhood haunts, Griffin begins a complicated trip into the past, as he struggles to understand and untangle the emotional legacy his parents have left him. One year later, his mother's urn has joined his father's - still unscattered - and the procrastinating Griffin is on his way to his daughter's wedding. Only he and his wife are now separated. How did this happen, he keeps asking himself.
This lovely, questing novel is for anyone who has suddenly stopped in their tracks and thought, "Oh, God, I'm turning into my parents." Sometimes that's a good thing; other times it sends you running and screaming. But it happens - and increasingly so as we get older. It's also a novel about the false sense of security time sometimes gives us, about shifting memories, dealing with your partner's crazy family, and ultimately questions if a comfortable long-time marriage is strong enough to weather unexpected challenges. What is it about love - and the loved one - that sustains us? This is one of the best and most touching novels I've read this year and perfect for bookclubs. The cover reminds me a bit of Graham Swift's Last Orders. Different beach, different ashes, but definitely for the same readership.

I'll admit to struggling sometimes with John Updike's novels, but I think he was a superb short-story writer. Over several decades, he wrote eighteen stories featuring Joan and Richard Maple, chronicling their twenty year marriage, subsequent divorce, and one last story, "Grandparenting", when they both show up - now married to other people - at the hospital for the birth of their first grandchild. These stories have previously been scattered in various anthologies, but Everyman Pocket Classics has now re-issued them all together in chronological order, as The Maples Stories. We follow the couple through their house moves, their fights, and their affairs, and there is plenty of pain and drinking along the way. But there are also many tender and unexpected moments; Richard can fall in love with his wife all over again in, of all places, a sterile hospital room where he is reluctantly giving blood, yet during a romantic trip to Italy the two fall out of love. This couple spends so much energy trying desperately to get the other's attention, that they fail to celebrate and cherish the very real connection that they do share. A lot of relationship lessons to be learnt here. My favourite stories are "Giving Blood", "Your Lover Just Called" and "The Red-Herring Theory."
I also have to mention what a lovely little package this is as well - hardcover but the size of a mass market, and bound in a cheery (ironic?) yellow with Everyman's traditonal ribbon bookmark. And cheaper than most trade paperbacks. Come on - I dare you to give this as a wedding shower gift.

And finally for pure fun, there's Jane Hamilton's novel Laura Rider's Masterpiece. I was first drawn to the book by its fun pulpy cover. Laura has been happily married to Charles for a number of years and they run a successful plant nursery together. But Laura has made two recent decisions in her life - she wants to be a writer, particularly of romance novels, and she wants to stop having sex with her rather energetic and incredibly flexible husband; she equates a night with him to doing, "the complete regime of the Bowflex Home Gym." When Laura's idol, a popular talk show host named Jenna Faroli, moves to their town, meets Charles, and starts an initially innocent e-mail correspondence with him, Laura latches on to the potential both of them could serve as inspiration for her main characters. To observe their growing relationship more closely, she starts writing Charles's e-mails for him but things quickly spiral out of control culminating with a fanastically written, cringe-worthy confrontation between the two women on Jenna's radio show. This novel is a very original take on the effects, sometimes even positive, an affair can have on a marriage. It also very much explores the lures of the writing life and dissects our popular and prejudiced attitudes between high and low-brow fiction. A great summer read.

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