I have been trying to read A Happy Marriage: A Novel by Rafael Yglesias. Naturally, I was attracted by its title. A happy marriage? What is that like I wondered? Did you ever know anyone who said they had a happy marriage, at least one, that lasted more than a dozen years? I’ve read about a few, but never in a novel.
And then the rave reviews started coming in. Susan Issacs wrote in the Times Book Review, “A tour de force, touching and harrowing at the same time.” The book flap claimed the book is “both intimate and expansive…” Another Times review said it was, a "profound deliberation on the nature of love, marriage, and the process of dying." How could I resist?
And so I started reading. The story begins with Enrique’s effort to meet his wife-to-be, Margaret. It is agonizingly slow. A friend of Enrique’s is doing all he can to prevent their meeting. And yet when they finally do, Enrique stumbles over one hurdle after another. He is indecisive, anxious, clumsy, rather adolescent actually.
They finally meet and Enrique is smitten at once. He is taken with, “Margaret’s wet blue eyes, thin body, dainty movements, the way she flings her leg over a chair: Something happened inside Enrique like a guitar string suddenly unstrung. There was a shock and a vibration in his heart, a palpable break inside the cavity of his chest.” And so it goes.
The succeeding chapters alternative between their equally slow courtship and those where Yglesias describes Margaret’s awful battle with cancer “in pitiless minutiae.” Dinitia Smith writes in the Times, “Seldom has there been in any novel such an unremitting depiction of the ravages of cancer.” It is grim and very difficult to read.
I put the novel down, placed it at the bottom of my stack of books, and mumbled something along the lines of “I can’t read this any more, the reviews not withstanding.” I wondered if something was wrong with me. How come I found so little in this novel that so many are raving about?
And then I read a review by David Meyers at The Commonplace Blog that made me feel I hadn’t gone off the deep end after all. Meyers writes: “Few books have disappointed me more than Rafael Yglesias’s novel A Happy Marriage. Its title raised my expectations to probably unreachable heights…It is touted by Scribner as an “achingly honest story about what it means for two people to spend a lifetime together—and what makes a happy marriage.” But it is none of that. It aches not; neither is it honest. And it is not about what makes a happy marriage.”
Although I have not finished the novel and am not sure if I will, I did early on find an important lesson for couples with few interests in common. Yglesias writes, “They had different tastes, and sometimes wanted different things from each other, and yet they had lived a happy life together…” Clearly there is far more to a close and long lasting marriage than shared interests.
When I read that passage in A Happy Marriage, I was reminded at once of how bewildered Woody Allen was that he and Mia Farrow remained together for as long as they did even though they had little in common.
“I could go on about our differences forever: She doesn't like the city and I adore it. She loves the country and I don't like it. She doesn't like sports at all and I love sports. She loves to eat in, early -- 5:30, 6 -- and I love to eat out, late. She likes simple, unpretentious restaurants; I like fancy places. She can't sleep with an air-conditioner on; I can only sleep with an air-conditioner on. …. She would love to take a boat down the Amazon or go up to Mount Kilimanjaro; I never want to go near those places. … She has raised nine children now with no trauma and has never owned a thermometer. I take my temperature every two hours in the course of the day."
One wonders to what extent A Happy Marriage is a novel. Every commentator points out how closely it mirrors the facts of Yglesias life—that he dropped out of high school to write a very successful first novel, had an affair with another woman, and gave everything he had to his wife while she was battling cancer. Myers remarks that the novel deals less with Margaret than with Yglesias himself. He concludes, “Margaret Joskow must have been an extraordinary woman, but from this novel the best you can do is to suppose so.”