Complex Marriages in Fiction

Since the moment my husband and I announced our engagement—twenty-six years ago—I’ve heard just about all the marriage advice imaginable. Marry your best friend.” Marriage is work.” Dont go to bed angry.  Cliches without specifics didn’t resonate with me then, and now that my daughter is about to marry, I’m thinking long and hard about the pearls of wisdom I want to impart to her.

While there are lots of terrific nonfiction self-help books aimed at couples starting out, getting hitched, navigating rough patches, or even contemplating calling it quits, for the deep dive on marital relationships, I turn to fiction.

Crossing to SafetyThere’s no limit to the power of storytelling to teach. And since there are many right ways—and wrong ways—to nurture a relationship, novels provide complex and meaningful examples of what’s in store once the honeymoon is over.

One story I return to again and again is Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. I nearly sigh at the sound of the title. It’s touted as a novel about the alchemy of friendship, and it is, yet it’s also a glimpse inside two very different marriages. Sid and Charity Lang befriend Larry and Sally Morgan while both men are on the professor to tenure track at a small mid-western university. The portraits of these relationships offer much food for thought about how couples care for their relationships in the face of personal desires for independence.

Stegner writes, It all comes back in broken scenes,highlighting one of Crossing to Safetys strengths. It explores marriage in retrospect, over decades in the lives of its characters. Similarly beautiful is Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel. Set in the community of houses built on pilings in the middle of Biscayne Bay (hence the book’s title) readers watch the marriage of Frances and Dennis DuVal unfold. Against a landscape that mirrors the calm and storm of relationships, Daniel paints an authentic, heartaching view of what it means to make a commitment—and then struggle to remain true to it.

I Married You For Happiness

One of the most poignant reflections I’ve read on this subject is I Married You for Happiness by Lily Tuck. This slim volume captures a wife’s remembrances of her husband and their forty three years together after she finds him in their home, dead of a sudden andunexpected event. As Nina waits by his bedside for help to arrive, she recalls the trials and triumphs of their long life together. A novel layered with romance and tenderness, tension and strife, this fictional story so closely resembles real life it reads like a memoir.

If you prefer depictions of marriage more contentious, then there is no better novel than Revolutionary Roadby Richard Yates. A finalist for the National Book Award in 1962, the novel was acclaimed and beloved long before Leo and Kate starred in the film version of the story. Frank and April Wheeler are a couple in love, but their undoing is the way each copes with frustration and yearning. Often referred to as the quintessential novel of suburban malaise, in an interview for Ploughsharesten years after the novel’s release, Yates said, I think I meant it more as an indictment of American life in the 1950s. Because during the Fifties there was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbsa kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price.Revolutionary Road

As with literary villains who are painted all bad, I’m not interested in reading only about overly dreadful marriages. I want characters and their interactions to be truly complex and multi-faceted—you know, like real relationships. Here are some more top picks in the category: reflections on marriage.

Life Drawing by Robin Black

A character-driven story about a painter and a writer navigating the intimacies and betrayals of their relationship—their art and mid-life. I fell in love with Black’s writing when I read her short story collection, If I Loved You I Would Tell You This. Verdict: read both!

The Forever Marriage by Ann Bauer

This compelling novel ponders the question, what if you longed to be out of your marriage and then suddenly your wish was granted? Reminiscent of the novels of Anne Tyler and Elizabeth Berg, I recommend this one often because of it’s originality and Bauer’s effortless storytelling.