Literary 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!
- Ariel at One Little Library
- Carolyn at Rosemary & Reading Glasses (on break)
- Cecilia at Only You (on break)
- Audra at Unabridged Chick (on break)
- Emily at The Bookshelf of Emily J.
- Kay at What Me Read
- Lynn at Smoke & Mirrors
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.