Marriage By The Book: Five Tales Of Uncivil Union

Broken figurines on a wedding cake

If previous years' bookshelves were crowded with woeful tales of single living, 2008 marked the year of marriage; even Anna Karenina, the ne plus ultra of domestic dissatisfaction, got back into the act, returning as a resident of Rego Park in Irina Reyn's What Happened to Anna K.

So, have literary unions become more civil since Tolstoy? Alas, no — and every one of the marriages in these five books is unhappy in its own way.

'American Wife'

Curtis Sittenfeld's 'American Wife'
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld, Random House, hardcover, 558 pages, list price: $26.00

First lady Laura Bush has, for nearly a decade, remained a largely opaque figure. But in her thinly veiled American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld reimagines one of the more perplexing couplings of our era through the person of Alice Blackwell, a public figure whose quiet bookishness seems an odd match for a GOP redneck husband. In her best-selling Prep, Sittenfeld earned praise for her vivid, quietly powerful, and not-a-word-out-of-place prose. Here, Sittenfeld expands, both in scope and narrative force, her saga sprawling across the U.S. and the late 20th century like an indolent cat. There are no crystalline portraits, only a painstaking depiction of the slow ruination of Alice's marriage, which runs parallel to the country's own downward slide. As the couple finally leaves the White House, Alice looks at her marriage and wonders who is the truly corrupt one — her husband, or herself for being complicit. But, as she notes, she only married him. It's the American public that gave him power.

'Fine Just the Way it Is'

Annie Proulx's 'Fine Just the Way it Is'
Fine Just the Way it Is by Annie Proulx, Scribner, hardcover, 221 pages, list price: $25.00

If Brokeback Mountain's Ennis and Jack withered under the judgment of society, love here withers in below-zero temperatures. In "Them Old Cowboy Songs," just one of the stories in Brokeback author Annie Proulx's latest collection, marital bliss brings with it a stillborn infant delivered in isolation and left to be torn apart by wolves, while his mother bleeds out and his father freezes to death miles away. (Some honeymoon.) In "Tits-up in a Ditch," a bride's loveless marriage is presaged when she's forced to pay for her own bridal dinner, a modest affair at the diner where she works. And in "Testimony of the Donkey," a girl whose fiance has left her goes hiking alone for spite and winds up literally pinned between rocks and facing sure death.

It's always been the paradox of Proulx that the more serious the circumstances, the wryer her dark humor becomes. (Her attempts at overtly comic stories are the only flat notes in the bunch.) But despite the harsh circumstances, the stories themselves are improbable delights, their overwhelmingly bleak view of the lot of women summed up best by an observation of the nurse's aid in "Family Man," about a serial philanderer: "Women had to pretend to like men and to admire the things they liked. Her own sister had married a man who was interested in rocks, and now she had to drag around deserts and steep mountains with him."

'The German Bride'

Joanna Hershon's 'The German Bride'
The German Bride by Joanna Hershon, Ballantine, hardcover, 304 pages, list price: $25.00

After one ill-advised affair with an artist who paints her innocent portrait, teenager Eva Frank, a well-heeled Jewess in Berlin of 1865, finds herself on a wagon swaying toward Sante Fe. She's in the care of her new husband, following him across the ocean to outdistance the repercussions of their scandal. After one of their first nights on the trail, Eva and Abraham find they've made camp among the ripe carcasses of a recent massacre. This grim landscape sets the tone for the rest of their relationship, in which Abraham — who drinks, steals, whores and gambles away any savings they manage to accumulate — fails to live up to even one standard the pioneering Jewish husbands routinely provide for their new German wives. The depiction of this little-known community is itself fascinating, but Hershon avoids the pitfalls of fiction-cum-PBS documentary. Her research runs through the text skillfully, as elegant and imperceptibly woven as the threads in the white linen table service that Eva — both willful and guilt-ridden, sophisticated and ignorant — hauls all the way from Germany.

'Olive Kitteridge'

Elizabeth Strout's 'Olive Kitteridge'
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Random House, hardcover, 270 pages, list price: $25.00

Small portraits of New England life can be as cloying and precious as a Saturday stroll in the town square. But, like the seaside Maine town where it is set, Olive Kitteridge mines a rocky, bleak territory. Strout's eponymous heroine, a retired schoolteacher, is as intemperate and moodily violent as Strout's writing is lucid and remarkable. An aging woman given to mordant observations on her own now-loveless marriage, her distant son and her (universally unhailed) life's work, Olive is the kind of mother who, for spite, is capable of secretly desecrating her daughter-in-law's clothes with magic marker.

The trope of the sleepy town that hides a welter of misery is by now a cliche, but Strout manages to convince us anew. And she has the knack of keeping her work simultaneously "literary" and fast-paced, so one races through finely wrought prose as if in the grips of a particularly satisfying thriller — think Cheever edited by Stephen King.

'Beginner's Greek'

James Collins' 'Beginner's Greek'
Beginners Greek, by James Collins, Little, Brown & Company, hardcover, 448 pages, list price: $23.99

Although an innocent, finally requited love story is at the heart of James Collins' Beginner's Greek, far more compelling for the reader are the failed relationships revolving around it like so many bitter, arid moons. Peter and Holly meet on a plane, realize simultaneously that the other is "the one," then are separated by a series of minor misunderstandings. So much for Peter and Holly. But when they meet years later, complicating a straightforward, joyous reunion is the fact that Holly is now married to Peter's best friend, while Peter himself has taken up with a woman as joyless as Holly is enchanting. All around Holly and Peter lie figures felled by Cupid's errant bow, and in his depictions of the juicy vicissitudes of flawed love, Collins excels most at the cruel aside. The only false note in the book is the depiction of Peter and Holly themselves. Collins tries hard to make us root for them, but despite his best efforts, they remain waxen, unformed, as faceless as the white figures atop a wedding cake.

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