If Your Marriage Is on the Rocks

We kick off our blog with a short list of five books that might be tonics to marital troubles. If only because they'll make you feel better! Tell us what books you'd gently press on a friend. And feel free to weigh in on these.

1. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
Bored wife falls for dashing bachelor. No less than the classic on the question. So provocative and controversial in its time, that when it was originally published in serial installments in the Russian Messenger, the magazine editor pulled the last chapters and refused to publish any more. Read it as salve. Things couldn't get much worse.

2. On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan
A throwback to the early '60s, on the cusp of the sexual revolution. Reading it now -- sly move by McEwan -- we realize how simple the solution might have been had this young bride and groom postponed their big night for a decade: All they needed was a bit more openness, more talk. It makes you wonder how enlightened minds in the future will see current myopias.

3. The Awakening, by Kate Chopin
Back to the 19th century, and our heroine, alas, was born long before her time. She is dreamy, artistic -- a mother of two in the staid, mid-century city of New Orleans. She has sex with a younger man when her husband is out of town, and, suddenly, all her repressed creativity is released. Society will make her pay a high price for it.

4. Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert
Some will say that this story is all too similar to 1 and 3, but, since the characters are French, that would be impossible. Love here is nothing like Anna's harrowing love for Vronsky, nor is it about a woman led to the depths of her own soul. It's Emma, having a good roll in the hay with Rodolphe, and then with Leon -- all of it out of sheer appetite and vanity. In the end, romance doesn't live up to her hyperinflated illusions, nor, for that matter, does her grand exit.

5. Rambling Rose, by Calder Willingham
A rural Georgia household is turned upside down when an attractive, seductive young woman comes from the city to be the family maid. But despite all temptations -- which prove considerable -- the husband remains true to his wife. Who knew virtue could be so entertaining?

-- Marie Arana

By Christian Pelusi |  October 5, 2007; 7:26 PM ET Fiction , Marie Arana
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Hello again,
I thought I'd post these comments up here where they belong:

Where are the current books? Granted, you mention Ian McEwan's book--a novel that was published recently. But there must be a ton of contemporary books about marriage and trouble. How about Annie Dillard's The Maytrees? There's a book about marriage for our times. We all know people like this. The hero drops his wife for his lover. And then, many, many years later, he brings his lover back home to die in the very home where he and his former wife lived. Now that's a guidebook on marital relations. Head on.

Posted by: capitol hill | October 5, 2007 09:54 PM

cool blog!
but i hope it doesn't mean that you're always doing fiction. i'd like to know, for instance, what your top 5 science books would be.

Posted by: steve | October 7, 2007 08:22 AM

Happy to have these comments. To answer the first, yes, there are so many books that might have been chosen. The Maytrees is a great suggestion. In chatting with Michael Dirda, our Book World columnist, he mentioned his favorites about marriage (to be specific, about marriage and sex!):
Tristan and Isolde, by Gottfried von Strassburg. Forbidden love, betrayed marriage vows, betrayed country!

The Princess of Cleves, by Marie Madeleine de Lafayette. She falls in love with a rake.
The Diary of a Seducer, by Soren Kierkegaard. He does it out of boredom.
The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett. An unlikely but very happy couple. Just for contrast!

and last but not least:
The Lady With the Dog, a story by Chekhov. A masterpiece about love, marriage, and seduction.

As for science books, yes we're bound to have them on this blog in the future. Hmmm. You already have me thinking: Stephen Hawking? Carl Sagan? Sylvia Nasar?

Posted by: Marie Arana | October 8, 2007 1:41 PM

How nice to have this Book World Blog! I like Steve's suggestion about science. To me, that includes social science and it means that we can have our marriage books and eat them too. I'm a social scientist and spent years reading all the books and journal articles I could find on topics such as whether getting married makes you happier, healthier, and so forth. Those claims are rampant. One book, for example, has a subtitle, "why married people are happier, healthier, and better off financially." When I looked closely at the numbers and the methodology (I have also taught research methods for more than 2 decades), I found that most of these claims are grossly exaggerated or just plain false. (An exception: the one about getting married and becoming better off financially - that one is true.) I wrote about all this in my book, "SINGLED OUT: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After." That will cheer up a person who is unhappily married! Marie Arana asked us what books we would "gently press on a friend." I am passionate about this topic, so sometimes I am not so gentle. But in addition to Singled Out, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other choices of books with a nice mix of science and singlehood. Check out the new Singles Studies website if you are interested. It is at http://issc.Berkeley.edu/singlesstudies. After all, now that Americans spend more years of their adult lives unmarried than married, we should be listing our favorite books about singles.

--Bella DePaulo

Posted by: Bella DePaulo | October 9, 2007 5:16 AM

Falubert's novel is only like AK & Awakening in that Mdme. Bovary is a satire of those books. Her name is "Mrs. Cow" (in Latin).

Posted by: Dan | October 9, 2007 10:24 AM

Thanks to Bella for her comment about the many books on marriage troubles available in nonfiction mode. Perhaps others will want to list more of these.

As for Dan's note: Bos, bovis, bovem is Latin for cow. Not a far leap to Bovary, to be sure.

Here are some other novels on marriage that hit my cutting room floor, although they have much to say about the state of the union. And its troubles:

Lady Chatterly's Lover, by D.H. Lawrence. The book gives new meaning to Voltaire's dictum that gardens are meant to be tended. But then there's Sons and Lovers, another sizzler by Lawrence on male female unions.

Ada, by Vladimir Nabokov. Brother and sister are in love, and, eventually, marriage gets in the way.

Look at Me, by Anita Brookner. A young woman becomes obsessed with a friendly couple's marriage. No troubles here except hers.

Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A marriage, yes. But oh the longing that it causes.

Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates. Trouble in suburbia. A classic on the theme.

The Bad Girl, by Mario Vargas Llosa. So many bad marriages! And still he waits. I'm inclined to think this is a send-up of GGM's Love in the Time of Cholera.)

Tess of the D'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy. My teenage favorite of all time.


Posted by: Marie Arana | October 9, 2007 5:09 PM

I like Sentimental Education by Flaubert much more than anything else he wrote. i would like to suggest "How To Be Good" by Nick Hornby. Much more modern.

Posted by: Sean McVeigh | October 10, 2007 5:51 AM

I don't know the McEwan or Willingham, but the other three novels culminate with the woman committing suicide. They have much to recommend them, of course, but as tonics for people with marital troubles? How are they supposed to make such people feel better? By contrast?

Posted by: Ed | October 10, 2007 6:29 AM

Currently going through a divorce. Books that have helped me:

1. It's Called a Breakup Because Its Broken by Greg Behrendt and Amiira Ruotola-Behrendt (How to manual on breakups and divorce)
2. Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (Reminds you life could be worse)
3. Open House: A Novel by Elizabeth Berg (Great novel about a woman finding independence after a separation)
4. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan and Anna Quindlen (Reminds you to go against convention and love yourself first)

Posted by: Booklover | October 10, 2007 9:47 AM

I'll add Nora Ephron's "Heartburn" to the list. If you're going to be miserable, biting humor will save you every time.

Posted by: DK | October 10, 2007 9:57 AM

"The Ghost Rider" by Neil Peart

Neil Peart lost his only daughter and then his wife, within 6months back in 1996/97. He response was to ride his BMW motorcycle all across Canada, the Western US, Central and Suuth America. This great book is a journal of his time alone on the raod.

Posted by: Mount St Joseph HS | October 10, 2007 12:00 PM

Elizabeth Berg's novel "Say When," written from the perspective of the husband, is the examination of a marriage in trouble. It's quite readable, which might make it a helpful suggestion for those in crisis (i.e., those whose powers of concentration might not be as sharp as usual.)

And no one commits suicide.

Posted by: Marylandmom | October 10, 2007 12:41 PM

Where are all the posts? This blog was launched almost a week ago and nothing has been put up since its inception. It's not like there is a shortage of book news right now. For instance, the National Book Award finalists were just announced and, without doing a shred of research, there is at least one D.C. writer on it.

Posted by: Jim | October 10, 2007 1:21 PM

How to Survive the Loss of a Love

Posted by: J | October 10, 2007 1:48 PM

Thank you for recommending real literature. I wonder why you had to pander with the Jerry Springer Show type headline and lede, though. Is this blog gonna be highbrow or lowbrow? I think it's a mistake -- and sorta chicken -- to try to be both.

Posted by: Mary Ann | October 10, 2007 2:45 PM

Tom Perotta's Little Children --also anything by the late great Laurie Colwin (except maybe Happy all the time -- great but not a break-up book). Jane Smiley's The Age of Grief and her novella Ordinary Love.

Posted by: AJ | October 10, 2007 3:41 PM

Thanks for these posts.

To answer Jim, we only went live this past weekend, so it will take time to let people know we're here. Glad you're with us, though.

And thank you to Mary Ann. We haven't really thought about being highbrow or lowbrow. The idea is to be who we in Book World are: We're a little Beethoven, a little Metallica. The teasers you see on the website are put there by our far hipper and younger producers, whereas we in the Book World ranks are . . . well, I'll speak for myself . . . MORE MATURE. (Jerry Springer? Who's he?)

In any case, if we do it right, this blog should be for serious readers. But it should also be a lot of fun.

I like the Elizabeth Berg recommendation. But how come no one has thought to mention "Great Gatsby"?


Posted by: Marie Arana | October 10, 2007 5:43 PM

I really admire James Salter's "Light Years" (1975). The main couple drift apart so gradually, so nonchalantly, that we don't really notice when, precisely, they cease to be a couple until they have moved on to other partners. Nedra and Viri are beautiful and superficial, and watching their relationship decline is like watching smoke dissipate; it is alluring and nebulous and, ultimately, it is nothing. Salter's prose is the real protagonist, however: an economy and grace that makes every word glow. This is a depressing book, but also one of the most beautiful I have read. I think it is much more satisfying than his better-known "A Sport and a Pastime" (1967).

Posted by: Jason | October 10, 2007 12:50 PM

Posted by: Jason | October 10, 2007 5:48 PM

Y'know, I love Dirda, but definitely NOT The Princess of Cleves. Great book, but way too romantic, and not for those suffering a breakup. It's about Perfect Love. You'll want to hurt the couple.

How to Be Good actually did surprise me in its description of marriage. Not bad at all. But too much happy ending?

May I humbly suggest Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner, as a book about the complete hell that can come from two loving people joining their lives? If nothing else, it will reinforce the painful decision to do something, anything, in preference to suffering in silence for decades.

Posted by: krasni | October 10, 2007 9:03 PM

Am really struck by the posting about James Salter. If any writer deserved more attention it is he. As to "How To Be Good" by Nick Hornby, I haven't read it, so must plead ignorance.

But I'm really intrigued by the posting about Wallace Stenger's "Angle of Repose," which is truly about marriage. Every bit of it. Written in another age--1971--it's about a man whose marriage is disintegrating, and yet he sets out to find out why the marriage of his grandparents was so strong. Stegner's language in spare but powerful. His images are beautiful. This is a wonderful entry to any discussion about books about marriage. Thanks to krasni for this suggestion.

Posted by: Marie Arana | October 12, 2007 9:03 PM

How about The Nice and the Good by Iris Murdoch as an examination of the many ways that even loving spouses can hurt each other?

Posted by: Kate | October 17, 2007 12:20 PM

Shelby Hearon's new book, "Year of the Dog," is a sweet (but not saccharine) account of how a Southern woman recovers from her divorce in Vermont...with a dog.

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