Adam Phillips, Monogamy
The memories keep coming back, out of nowhere so it would seem, not in any particular order, simply times and places we were together. A day in Paris, a movie we saw, the first time we met.
This is the kind of experience Lily Tuck recounts in her recent novel I Married You for Happiness. Phillip is a mathematician; Nina is a painter. They met in Paris in the 60s while he was on a Fullbright and she studying to be an artist. The novel opens as Nina is preparing dinner, realizes that Phillip has not come down to join her, and goes upstairs to find he has suddenly died.
She spends the night by his side, recalling one experience after another of their forty-two years together. They arrive in short, unrelated flashbacks that are recounted in equally short fragments. It is cold, she puts on a coat he bought her in China, opens a bottle of wine, and lays down by his side.
“Spring. The weather is warm, the chestnut trees are in flower, brilliant tulips bloom in the Luxembourg Garden.”
It does not take long, however, before we learn that their marriage is less than perfect. Whose is? Phillip lectures her on mathematical theory from Fermant to Schrodinger, from the simple to the complex.
“The probability of an event occurring when there are two possible outcomes is known as a binomial probability…A chance event is not influenced by the events that have gone before it. Each [coin] toss is an independent event”
“She does not like his tone. The way he emphasizes certain words to make his point and the way he speaks to her as if she were a child.” Nina begins to realize the extent to which she has ceded her identity to Phillip’s.
And yet this collision of two different worlds is overlaid with deep love. “She can feel his arms around her. … Sweet, teasing familiar. They have a good time together. They laugh a lot. Is laughter the secret to a good marriage, she wonders? They know each other well. Just what I was thinking, she say…They nearly have the same dream once.”
Nina wonders if there were secrets he kept from her. Did Philip have a lover, someone like Lorna, a physicist he knows, would he have married Iris had she not been killed in a car crash? “She believes Philip loves her but how can she be certain of this.”
She had an affair and later an abortion that Phillip never knew about--“Lies of awful omission.”
“How long ago everything seems to her. And how unreal…She cannot imagine a life without Philip. Nor does she want to.”
Lily Tuck’s I Married You for Happiness is a beautiful prose poem of the defining moments of a marriage. It is the third memoir I have read recently written by a woman after the sudden death of her husband. The two others were Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story. Of the three, Tucks memoir is the only fictional account.
I am not sure if this is the reason why it also seems truer than the others to the experience of a long marriage, particularly a couple from two different worlds. Because it is written in fragments, it also seems true to the way memories, the real and imagined, return to us in a seemingly random fashion, like the way probability theory teaches us to expect the unexpected.