Literary Wives: The Happy Marriage by Tahar Ben Jelloun

literarywives2Literary Wives is an on-line book club that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Every other month, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind:

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!


25614388The Happy Marriage by Tahar Ben Jelloun

[Contain spoilers]

The first thing to be said about The Happy Marriage is that it is not a book about a happy marriage. There is a lot of hate in this book. In fact, there is a whole chapter dedicated to it, and a long list of the things the wife hates about her husband on page 294-295. This left a bad taste in my mouth, and had me searching out a ‘happy’ book for my next read as a palette cleanser. I didn’t ‘enjoy’ this book (I’m not sure if we are meant to), but I did find it interesting.

The book is divided into 2 parts; the first part told by the husband, the second by the wife. I have seen it compared to Fates & Furies, but can tell you that it is very different. In F&F, a third person is telling us their stories, but in The Happy Marriage, the married couple are the narrators of their own stories. This, of course, renders them completely unreliable. In some ways, this makes the book more interesting, but for the purposes of reading it for the Literary Wives group I found it frustrating. How can I tell what the book is saying about wife-dom when I don’t know for sure what really happened or what the characters really thought about each other, or about their roles in the marriage? The only thing we can know for sure is that they were not happy.

Every sacrifice is possible and tolerable in a couple until the day when one of them realizes that there were sacrifices to make.        —-Sacha Guitry

Part 1: The first part of the book is written in third person about the husband/painter after he has suffered a stroke. Because it is written in third person, we don’t yet know that the husband is writing his own story. By the end of this section I really thought there could be no way for the wife to redeem herself after everything the husband had to say about her.

There were some sections in this first part that I wondered about the purpose of. At one point he describes in detail all the women he has loved in his life. What was the purpose? Was he trying to show how well he is loved by many women, so we would wonder why his wife wasn’t equally enamoured of him? Or maybe he was reminiscing about the good life he used to have? I thought Part 1 could have been shortened a bit.

Part 2: [Spoiler] Here we find out that Part 1 was written by the husband after all, and therefore entirely unreliable. The wife’s section is written as a response to her husband’s, clarifying or completely changing all the things the husband has just said. Basically, the wife tells us that he was a controlling, neglectful, cheating jerk who wanted a submissive wife but didn’t get one. But can we trust her? She admits to her tendency to going off the deep end at any hint of betrayal, and at one point talks about her confusion over what it means to really love someone. Maybe she had unrealistically high expectations of marriage.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

If I take everything I read in the book and smoosh it all together and interpret it the way I think it probably played out, then I would say that there was a guy who was getting close to 40 and he decided that it was time to find a nice wife and settle down and have some kids. And by this I mean he wanted a woman who would be submissive and easy to control so that he could continue living the life he wanted, and was used to, while also having a wife at home and some children. “He thought that he’d married a quiet little shepherdess who wouldn’t look him in the eye and who would swallow all of his bullshit”.

But he was quite mistaken. She turned out to be feisty, with the capability to play nasty. Which she did when she found out her husband was cheating on her. She did everything she could think of to make his life miserable to make up for how miserable and controlled she felt as his wife.

He intimidated and dominated me. I needed to shift the power dynamic in our relationship and so I dared to defy him and knocked him from the public pedestal he’d set himself up on. What I admire most in him was his maturity, his experience, and his fame. I wanted him all to myself, there was nothing unusual about that, no woman ever wants to share her man, as far as I’m concerned any woman who sleeps with a married man is a whore and a slut. I can spot them a mile away and I hate them. I even started to hatch plans for how I would kill these kinds of women, plotting these crimes carefully with a serial killer’s rigorousness.

One thing I think this passage shows is the power struggle between them. The problem is they both want to have most (or all) of the power. The other thing the passage shows is the unlikeability of the wife. She sounds like she has very strong opinions and not a lot of flexibility. When both wife and husband are selfish power-mongers it makes the playing field a whole lot messier. It is impossible to put your trust into either story, which just left me with more questions than answers by the end.

Questions/comments that came up while reading the book:

1)”When your life is in someone else’s hands, is it still really a life?” In context, this question is being asked of the husband as he struggles with the fact that he can’t do anything on his own anymore since his stroke. But it could also be said that if a wife is feeling controlled and trapped in her marriage, that she also is not really living her life.

2) “Was married life impossible unless one of the two transformed into a shadow?” In context the husband is imagining that he would have to relinquish all control to her in order to live in peace. But as long as they are both thinking it’s about control, then neither will ever be happy.

3) The wife believes there should be so secrets between them, but the husband thinks this is ridiculous; he can’t imagine a life without his privacy. In the context of the book, of course, they are alluding to secrets like infidelity and the privacy to be able to carry it out. But, in a good marriage, should there be no secrets, no privacy? Or does it depend on what the secret is, and what the privacy is for? Trust in a marriage should make it possible to also have some privacy. What do you think?

4) “It seems in order to hate someone, you have to really love them first.” In the context of the book, the wife is referring to the time before they married and the first couple of years after, when they were so happy. Did the great love in the beginning lead to the great hate? Is it the huge disappointment you feel after being on the top of the world and suddenly finding yourself at the very bottom?

5) “How can you tell the difference between romantic love and real love?” At this point in her life, the wife is confused about love. Did she ever really love him enough? But, looking back, she feels as though all she did and went through was “spurred on by love”. Did she want the kind of love that she saw between her relatives; quiet love that grows over time and becomes comfortable, content, with no conflict? Or did she want the kind that stormed in and swept you off your feet; the kind she read about in books and saw in the movies?

The end: I found the end of the book frustrating. It doesn’t make sense to me that the wife would make this decision after everything she ranted about. By by the end of the book, I also started to wonder about her stability, so maybe this is just another of her bizarre swings. Or maybe it’s something more sinister, like a twisted kind of revenge. Maybe if you have to love someone to hate them, the opposite is also true; you have to hate someone to love them. I really don’t know what to make of it. And I get the sense that the wife doesn’t really know what to make of it, either.

This book is not perfect. At times it feels too long, and at times it seems to repeat itself or even contradict itself. But if you are interested in books about marriage, then you might like it. It will definitely give you something to think about.

In my role as a Literary Wife, this book really challenged me. More than ever, I am curious to see what the other Literary Wives made of it.


58 thoughts on “Literary Wives: The Happy Marriage by Tahar Ben Jelloun

  1. susanosborne55 says:

    This one’s already on my radar but after reading your review I’m not so sure. It sounds somewhat grueling. Excellent post, Naomi, and I’m going to add ‘smoosh’ to my vocabulary. Great word!

    • Naomi says:

      I think I would tend to agree with this. And, when I think about it, it’s almost impossible to have someone else know *everything* about you! How exhausting.

      • Ariel Bartlett says:

        I completely agree! I think it’s normal and healthy to have things that are all your own, even in a marriage. Then there are marriages like Jane Eyre & Mr. Rochester, where Jane says that their conversations were merely an extension of their thoughts. That’s nice, and might be true for some couples, but for most people I think it’s normal to have and need something that is all your own.

  2. Sarah's Book Shelves says:

    I love the idea of this book club!! Books about the role of wives and marriages always seem to capture my attention. If I had time to add in one more thing, I’d totally try to get in on this!

    • Naomi says:

      It has been fun! Especially seeing everyone else’s response to a book. We all pick out different things to focus on, and have different ways of seeing things.
      Whenever you have the chance, you’re more than welcome to read along with us and join in on the conversation! We post the first Monday of every second month. And, normally I would try to remember to announce our next book at the end of the review, but I wasn’t sure this time which one it was. I think it’s The Disobedient Wife by Annika Milisic-Stanley.

  3. whatmeread says:

    I agree with you on this one, but I have some thoughts about your questions. I think the purpose of the section where the husband talks about all his lovers might be because he thinks his audience shares his values, or it might be because he is trying in a perverse way to prove that he understands women, which he clearly does not. I also don’t think a marriage where people try to share everything is necessarily wise or healthy. I think about a situation, for example, where one partner was unfaithful. If the unfaithful partner changes his or her ways and rejoins the marriage with full intentions of continuing a loving relationship, what does it serve to share the information about unfaithfulness. I think it serves only the conscience of the person who was unfaithful, doing double damage to the marriage. In other words, first the person is unfaithful, then he feels bad about it, so he confesses. Then he feels better, but his spouse has to suffer. Two self-serving actions in a row.

    • Naomi says:

      I tend to agree with you about privacy within a marriage. The fact that the wife was so adamant that there be no secrets between them was one of the many things that made me wonder about her. She had such strong inflexible opinions; not much wiggle room for breathing.

    • Grab the Lapels says:

      I feel like privacy in a marriage is more about space than not sharing thoughts. I can’t stand when my husband reads my computer screen over my shoulder or watches me as I write in my notebook. What’s on the screen? What’s on the notebook? Nothing. I’m probably writing something about how much I like potato salad, or something else so inconsequential. In terms of hiding thoughts, though, I can’t think of anything I wouldn’t share with my husband. We didn’t sit down and hash out everything about our pasts; that’s awkward and forced. Things come out over the years, though. I guess I always felt that if what came out was a big piece of devastating news, it would have shaped my husband’s character in such a way that I would have noticed before we got married.

      • Lynn says:

        I would definitely agree. My husband and I often blurt out the same reactions at the exact same time; we unconsciously think alike! Nothing wrong with that, but we each have our own phone number and phone, our own email accounts (I do not understand sharing an email account), etc. That is healthy, IMHO!

      • Naomi says:

        I agree, Lynn, about the separate accounts. Although, if people want to combine them then they can go right ahead! Personally, I find it simpler to keep them separate.

      • Naomi says:

        That’s a good distinction between privacy versus keeping secrets. We all need our space, but I suspect some people have secrets that they feel like they need to keep, too.

  4. Sarah says:

    What a fantastic idea! I might not be convinced by the book, but I’m totally sold on the book club, so I’m off to check out all the other reviews now, too! 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      It’s a lot of fun! And we welcome anyone who wants to read along and join in the conversation (the first Monday of every second month)! I think our next book is The Disobedient Wife by Annika Milisic-Stanley. (Unfortunately, we usually can’t tell you beforehand how good the book is, because we haven’t read it yet!)

  5. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    It sounds like husband and wife deserved each other. Thank you for reviewing it; I will pass on it. I really wonder if there are books out there that portray a realistic picture of love and partnership (realistic to me, anyway). It would probably end up being a boring book, just like it would be boring to write and read about happy people. But it would be nice to see a book where the characters value the fact that the butterflies of initial attraction have changed into something different and hopefully something more. So much for my Monday morning “rant.” 🙂 What are you reading next for the club?

    • Naomi says:

      I agree – I keep thinking it would be nice to read something about an ordinary marriage, but then remember that it would probably be boring. 🙂
      I usually would post the next book at the end of my review, but I didn’t because I wasn’t completely sure what it was. However, I think it’s going to be The Disobedient Wife by Annika Milisic-Stanley. If I find out that I’m wrong, I’ll let you know! The Disobedient Wife hasn’t been reviewed much, so it’ll be interesting to see what it’s like (hopefully, in a good way!).

      • Ariel Bartlett says:

        Isn’t that sad—that a portrait of a realistic marriage would be boring?! That makes me sad. I’m sure we can find a book that has a realistic marriage in it!!

      • Naomi says:

        We’ll keep our eyes out! I did read a book last year called Life Drawing by Robin Black (I can’t remember if it was one of my suggestions). I thought their marriage was ordinary, not perfect (there was an infidelity, but that’s not out of the ordinary for married couples I don’t think), but ordinary. And, it was a good book!

      • Grab the Lapels says:

        I still really think you ladies should read The Dangerous Husband by Jane Shapiro. It is fricken’ funny, but also raises interesting points about being a wife. The characters in that book also get married at a later age, like the characters in this book, which makes a big difference. The person who gets married at a later age and expects everything in the house to run like it did during single life….pffft, good luck.

  6. FictionFan says:

    Interesting idea for a bookclub, though I’m not sure this book sounds like it would work for me. Re the happy marriages in literature, they tend to be the secondary characters in the background who get on with holding things together when the primary characters are creating mayhem! A bit like life, perhaps…

  7. Emily J. says:

    Awesome review, Naomi! I think you are right that this book is not meant to be enjoyed. It wasn’t enjoyable. It was painful yet interesting. I like the questions you raised at the end. I also like the point you raised about him being near 40 when he married and how his expectations were off. Perhaps this is a commentary on expectations from both perspectives and also a critique of the ways in which people marry. We marry with selfishness and perhaps set in our ways. This painter probably should have never married!

    • Naomi says:

      I think he was born to be a bachelor!
      I liked what Kay said about the problem with bringing different expectations to a marriage – I think that was a big problem here for the wife. She was expecting great things, but all he was expecting was to be in control of everything!

  8. bookskeptic says:

    I found your privacy question interesting. On one hand mutual trust should reault in the right to privacy, on another, more paranoid, hand if we trust each other so much why the need to hide things 😉 then again it does sound almost totalitarian.

    • Naomi says:

      It is a good question for discussion, and I think a lot of books about marriage have this issue written in them somewhere. It can be a fine balance depending on what expectations are brought to the marriage!

  9. Bellezza says:

    I haven’t yet read Fates and Furies, though I mean too, but I am quite interested in books on marriage. It seems that this one might have displayed a marriage particularly from an eastern point of view? Not to say that marriages from the west don’t have husbands looking for submissive wives and ending up with the opposite! I like learning about other countries through literature, as you know, and that’s what would especially interest me about this one.
    What an interesting group to belong to, by the way: Literary Wives!

    • Naomi says:

      The group is a fun one to belong to!
      You just might be interested in this book then. One thing I didn’t include in my review (only because I couldn’t remember everything until it was too late) is that the story takes place right after the new Moroccan Law was introduced allowing women to resist being divorced from their husbands. So, in this book, the husband ends up wanting a divorce, but she won’t let him have one, and he’s worried that she will end up with everything if he persists. There is also information about their cultural and religious backgrounds. All that was interesting to me, since I have never read a book set in Morocco before.

  10. Read Diverse Books says:

    Those two people clearly not meant to be together!
    It does sound like a challenging book, but I personally like challenging, dark, unpleasant, controversial books. To a point of course. I won’t enjoy that is needlessly coarse or controversial just for the same of it.

    I really enjoyed your questions. Very thoughtful. Number 4 and 5 are especially interesting. I still wonder myself what the difference between romantic love and “real” love is. For the longest time, I thought they were one of the same.

    • Naomi says:

      It sounds to me like you just might like this book then! It is not needlessly coarse or controversial, and as you can tell by my questions, it will make you think. I’m still confused by #4 – nobody has cleared it up for me yet. 🙂

      • Read Diverse Books says:

        If someone you have loved and admired for years suddenly betrays you, I can understand why that would lead to a deep and genuine hatred. The hate would be more personal than the hate engendered by someone you never really cared about. I hope that never happens to me. I don’t hate anybody and never want to. I’m in a happy relationship and hope it stays that way!

      • Naomi says:

        That makes sense! I like to think it’s hard for me to get my head around because it has never happened to me, and I can’t imagine that it will. Which is good. And fortunate. Let’s hope it stays that way for both of us!

  11. Lynn @ Smoke & Mirrors says:

    I totally agree with you, Naomi! That first part could have been shortened a lot!!! 🙂 I like the way you note that control/power is at the heart of their problematic marriage. My husband and I were just discussing #3 this weekend. We know couples who “share” email accounts and neither of us can understand that. (But we are both ‘only children,’ so perhaps we each value our independence more that other couples.) We each want our privacy. Ah, romantic love vs. real love. I do really feel that each of us has a slightly different definition of “love” and that it can change for us as we age and experience life and loves. There are many ways to love and be loved, IMHO. But these two are just messed up!

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, it’s hard to see any kind of real love at all between the couple in the book. I’m guessing that they married for lust, but they confused it for love, in which case the statement she made in question #4 doesn’t apply to them!

  12. Ariel Bartlett says:

    Such a great review, Naomi!! This stuck out to me: “How can I tell what the book is saying about wife-dom when I don’t know for sure what really happened or what the characters really thought about each other, or about their roles in the marriage?” I remember in one of the books we read (I think it might have been American Wife or The Aviator’s Wife), the wife says that no one really knows what’s going on in a marriage besides those two people. I think that’s true, and one of the mysteries that makes this topic so alluring for us.

  13. Rebecca Foster says:

    I had heard of this book, but didn’t realize what it was really like. It sounds intriguing! The structure reminds me of Happenstance by Carol Shields, which is divided into “The Wife’s Story” and “The Husband’s Story” (but both in third person) — you literally turn the book upside down to read the other half. Do you know if this is a work in translation?

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, it’s a translation. (Another thing I should have mentioned!) Translated by Andre Nafis-Sahely.
      Thanks for reminding me of Happenstance – another possibility for our list!

    • Naomi says:

      I think the group was first started because of all those titles with ‘wife’ in them, and the bloggers who started it thought it might be fun to read them and see what they actually have to say about the wife. But, after a while, we started to run out of good ones, and have changed the criteria to just be books about wives or marriage. I think our options will be much wider and more diverse. Suggestions are always welcome!

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