Some Books about Marriage

My pre-Valentine’s Day reading involved a lot of books with “love”, “heart”, “romance”, etc. in the title (here’s the post that resulted). I ended up with a number of leftovers, plus some incidental reads from late in 2019, that focused on marriage – whether it’s happy or troubled, or not technically a marriage at all.


Marriage: A Duet by Anne Taylor Fleming (2003)

Two novellas in one volume. In “A Married Woman,” Caroline Betts’s husband, William, is in a coma after a stroke or heart attack. As she and her adult children visit him in the hospital and ponder the decision they will have to make, she remains haunted by the affair William had with one of their daughter’s friends 15 years ago. Although at the time it seemed to destroy their marriage, she stayed and they built a new relationship.

I fully expected the second novella, “A Married Man,” to give William’s perspective (like in Carol Shields’s Happenstance), but instead it’s a separate story with different characters, though still set in California c. 2000. Here the dynamic is flipped: it’s the wife who had an affair and the husband who has to try to come to terms with it. David and Marcia Sanderson start marriage therapy at New Beginnings and, with the help of Prozac and Viagra, David hopes to get past his bitterness and give in to his wife’s romantic overtures.

Fleming is a careful observer of how marriages change over time and in response to shocks, but overall I found the tone of these tales abrasive and the language slightly raunchy.


Not quite about a marriage, but a relationship so lovely that I can’t resist including it…

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (2015)

Understated, bittersweet, realistic. Perfect. I’d long meant to try Kent Haruf’s work and even had the first two Plainsong trilogy books on the shelf, but this novella, picked up secondhand at a bargain price from a charity warehouse, demanded to be read first. Fans of Elizabeth Strout’s work will find in Haruf’s Holt, Colorado an echo of her Crosby, Maine – fictional towns where ordinary folk live out their quiet triumphs and sorrows. From the first line, which opens in medias res, Haruf draws you in, making you feel as if you’ve known these characters forever: “And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters.” She has a proposal for her neighbor. She’s a widow; he’s a widower. They’re both lonely and prone to melancholy thoughts about how they could have done better by their families (“life hasn’t turned out right for either of us, not the way we expected,” Louis says). Would he like to come over to her house at nights to talk and sleep? Just two ageing creatures huddling together for comfort; no hanky-panky expected or desired.

So that’s just what they do. Before long, though, they come up against the disapproval of locals and family, especially when Addie’s grandson comes to stay and they join Louis to make a makeshift trio. The matter-of-fact prose, delivered without speech marks, belies a deep undercurrent of emotion in this story about the everyday miracle of human connection. There’s even a neat little reference to Haruf’s Benediction at the start of Chapter 34 (again like Strout, who peppered Olive, Again with cameo appearances from characters introduced in her earlier books). I also loved that the characters live on Cedar Street – I grew up on a Cedar Street. This gets my highest recommendation.


State of the Union: A Marriage in Ten Parts by Nick Hornby (2019)

Hornby has been making quite a name for himself in film and television. State of the Union is also a TV series, and reads a lot like a script because it’s composed mostly of the dialogue between Tom and Louise, an estranged couple who each week meet up for a drink in the pub before their marriage counseling appointment. There’s very little descriptive writing, and much of the time Hornby doesn’t even need to add speech attributions because it’s clear who’s saying what in the back and forth.

The crisis in this marriage was precipitated by Louise, a gerontologist, sleeping with someone else after her sex life with Tom, an underemployed music writer, dried up. They rehash their life together, what went wrong, and what might happen next in 10 snappy chapters that are funny but also cut close to the bone. What married person hasn’t wondered where the magic went as midlife approaches? (Tom: “I hate to be unromantic, but convenient placement is pretty much the definition of marital sex.”)


Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage by Madeleine L’Engle (1988)

The fourth and final volume of the autobiographical Crosswicks Journal. This one focuses on L’Engle’s 40-year marriage to Hugh Franklin, an actor best known for his role as Dr. Charles Tyler in All My Children between 1970 and 1983. In the book’s present day, the summer of 1986, she’s worried about Hugh when his bladder cancer, which starts off seeming treatable, leads to every possible complication and deterioration. Her days are divided between home, work (speaking engagements; teaching workshops at a writers’ conference) and the hospital.

Drifting between past and present, she remembers how she and Hugh met in the 1940s NYC theatre world, their early years of marriage, becoming parents to Josephine and Bion and then, when close friends died suddenly, adopting their goddaughter, and taking on the adventure of renovating Crosswicks farmhouse in Connecticut and temporarily running the local general store. As usual, L’Engle writes beautifully about having faith in a time of uncertainty. (The title refers not just to marriage, but also to Bach pieces that she, a devoted amateur piano player, used for practice.)

A wonderful passage about marriage:

“Our love has been anything but perfect and anything but static. Inevitably there have been times when one of us has outrun the other and has had to wait patiently for the other to catch up. There have been times when we have misunderstood each other, demanded too much of each other, been insensitive to the other’s needs. I do not believe there is any marriage where this does not happen. The growth of love is not a straight line, but a series of hills and valleys. I suspect that in every good marriage there are times when love seems to be over. Sometimes these desert lines are simply the only way to the next oasis, which is far more lush and beautiful after the desert crossing than it could possibly have been without it.”


The Wife by Meg Wolitzer (2003)

My latest book club read. On a flight to Finland, where her supposed genius writer of a husband, Joe Castleman, will accept the prestigious Helsinki Prize, Joan finally decides to leave him. When she first met Joe in 1956, she was a student at Smith College and he was her (married) creative writing professor, even though he’d only had a couple of stories published in middling literary magazines. Joan was a promising author in her own right, but when Joe left his first wife for her and she dropped out of college, she willingly took up a supporting role instead, and has remained in it for decades.

Ever since his first novel, The Walnut, a thinly veiled account of leaving Carol for Joan, Joe has produced books “populated by unhappy, unfaithful American husbands and their complicated wives.” Add on the fact that he’s Jewish and you have a Saul Bellow or Philip Roth type, a serial womanizer who’s publicly uxorious.

Alternating between the trip to Helsinki and telling scenes from earlier in their marriage, this short novel is deceptively profound. The setup may feel familiar, but Joan’s narration is bitingly funny and the points about the greater value attributed to men’s work are still valid. There’s also a juicy twist I never saw coming, as Joan decides what role she wants to play in perpetuating Joe’s literary legacy. My second by Wolitzer; I’ll certainly read more.


Plus a DNF:

The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer (2008)

In 1953 in San Francisco, Pearlie Cook learns two major secrets about her husband Holland after his old friend shows up at their door. Greer tries to present another fact about the married couple as a big surprise, but had planted so many clues, starting on page 9, that I’d already guessed it and wasn’t shocked at the end of Part I as I was supposed to be. Greer writes perfectly capably, but I wasn’t able to connect with this one and didn’t love Less as much as most people did. I don’t think I’ll be trying another of his books. (I read 93 pages out of 195.)


Have you read any books about marriage recently?

26 responses

  1. I enjoyed Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion after being disappointed by The Interestings, so have been wondering whether or not I should try The Wife. Your review is encouraging! The Kent Haruf also sounds great.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I enjoyed The Female Persuasion as well; that was my first of her books. I usually like novels about friendship, so I’m keen to try The Interestings. I also have Belzhar on the shelf.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This one seems appropriate at a time when relationships are likely to be under some strain. Delighted to see Haruf, as ever, and The Wife is excellent. I remember reading Marriage: A Duet, but nothing about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know what else to do apart from keep reading and writing as usual. I had a blog schedule worked out for March into April, so I’ll just stick to it.

      I’m surprised you know the Fleming. I picked it up for free at The Book Thing of Baltimore and it struck me as a book that time has forgotten.

      I’ll have to embark on the Plainsong trilogy soon.


      1. That’s my plan, too. I’ll also help out on social media where I can, particularly those poor authors whose debuts are due.

        I’m think Bloomsbury may have published the Fleming but that’s pretty well all I remember apart from the title which sounded promising.


    2. I like novellas so picked it up to read one November, but then it caught my eye in advance of Valentine’s instead.

      I’m attending a couple of virtual launch parties on Twitter tonight, and agreed to take part in a couple of “emergency” last-minute blog tours in early April. I also told our local indie bookshop owner that I’m available to give remote bibliotherapy / recommendations to her customers.


      1. Excellent idea. Keep well, Rebecca


  3. James Ashley Shea | Reply

    Seriously, you actually think I’d read something by Nick Hornby?


    1. I suppose he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve read almost all of his books now and this one is a stand-out: very funny, realistic and well constructed. I have pretty broad reading tastes. It’s always good to challenge one’s preconceptions. You’re a recent follower so I don’t know much (or anything) about you or what you read.


  4. I’m a huge fan of Kent Haruf, so I’ll be trying that one for sure. Nice new look for your blog! I’m trying to add a Goodreads sidebar but it’s proving trickier than expected. Watch this space (well, no, my space I suppose).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! From the dashboard, you go to Appearance –> Widgets –> drag Goodreads box to under “Sidebar”.


  5. I look forward to your review of the Richard Smyth by the way. I loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m over 1/3 through and it’s been perfect early spring reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Our Souls at Night is so gorgeous! Great list!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Cathy! Unfortunately I can’t get John Boyne’s elaborate Twitter joke about “Arseholes at Night” out of my head when I think of the title 😉


  7. There’s a Canadian author named Anne Fleming as well – at least, I don’t think it’s the same author, but maybe. This is a pet theme of mine. Recently it’s cropped up in my Emily St. John Mandel reading. As well as in a very sharp and funny new Canadian novel, by Michelle Kaeser, called The Towers of Babylon. I feel like there are others that aren’t coming to mind. Meg Wolitzer is great for this, yes! I’ve not read this one though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This one’s a Californian, author of two works of fiction and a memoir:

      I like the look of Towers of Babylon. I especially enjoy the blurb’s description of one character as “a communist/Anglican hybrid”!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. She’s very good at making characters complex without making them unnecessarily complicated, and by allowing the other characters to have equally complex responses to human contradictions.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Our Souls at Night sounds really lovely. I’m not sure why I enjoy reading books about older women so much – maybe a preview of many possible futures for myself? – but I do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love reading books by and about older people. I’d rather read about their wisdom and life experience than about young people making foolish mistakes.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I love books about marriage! Our Souls at Night and The Wife are both good ones. State of the Union sounds interesting… I think I’ll add it to the LW list for the future!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great idea! It’s short and funny, but also really poignant.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. […] Another fine showing; only the Giffels and Winner remain to be read. Reviews of the Groff, one L’Engle, and Manyika & Richardson appeared on the […]


  11. […] Cedars take me to Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (review here), which takes place on Cedar Street in the fictional Colorado town of Holt. I wouldn’t normally […]


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