18 November 2009

A Sentimental Education

I've read 164 books so far this year, with just six weeks of reading time remaining. I haven't gone through the full list in detail yet but I have been highlighting a small selection of books as I go, picking out books either for a top-five-of-the-year blog post or to add to my worth-buying-and-adding-to-the-permanent-collection list. Almost all of the highlighted books made me cry--as with movies, I usually prefer my books to be sad and tender rather than flighty and funny.

It's interesting how even a few months of hindsight is long enough for me to change my mind. When I read The Age of Innocence in March or April, it got added to the shortlist but now, while I still like the book a lot, when compared to other books I've read since then, I'm not sure it will still make the final cut. Sometimes my opinion of a book will be tarnished by my disliking of another one of the author's works. I really enjoyed Iain M Banks's Matter when I read it in May or June but having now read Banks's Transition and The Wasp Factory (the latter being by Banks without the M, while the former goes both with the scifi of the with-M alias and the non-scifi non-M alias), my opinion of Matter has now been devalued, simply because I didn't enjoy the two books I read later.

I was somewhat hesitant to take reading suggestions from an economist but Tyler Cowen has good taste in many things so when he recommended a book called A Happy Marriage by Rafael Yglesias on Marginal Revolution back in July, I decided to give it a whirl, based on Cowen's summary:

I devoured this book eagerly on a plane flight and I recommend it highly to those who are married, have been married, will be married, should be married, and should not be married.

I must have stopped reading there because I don't remember reading his next paragraphs about the appearances of bloggers and economists or about the fact that not many other novels contain a tongue-in-cheek explanation of the difference between micro- and macroeconomics.

Of course, the book hasn't been published yet in England and after repeated searches of my library catalogue, all in vain, I gave in and decided to just buy it while I was in the US--a rare occurrence these days for me when a) I read a lot of books, b) I don't necessarily want to own very many of them once I've read them, c) I don't have a lot of money and d) Westminster Libraries have a big enough collection that I can usually satisfy my reading needs with a 50p reservation fee.

At $26 it wasn't cheap either but I think it was a good investment--I will definitely read it again and the cover--leafy trees curving into a sort-of heart shape outside a New York apartment building--is pretty too. As it clocks in at under 400 pages, the book doesn't take up more than its fair share of shelf space either. As for the novel itself, it is a loosely fictionalised account of the author's almost 30-year marriage to Margaret Jostow. The author's name and the name of his sons change in the book, but otherwise many of the details are real. The raw, sensual, tender emotions that fill every word of the text are certainly very real.

The novel opens when Enri que (as Yglesias's alter ego is called) is introduced to Margaret by his friend Bernard. Enrique dropped out of school at 16 to write novels and enjoyed initial success but following his break-up with his much older girlfriend, he is suffering from a big loss of confidence. Margaret is a 24-year-old Cornell graduate and artist. She's beautiful with her big blue eyes and is somewhat socially awkward, which Enrique finds endearing. It's New York City in the early '70s and they are falling in love.

The next chapter flashes 30 years into the future where Margaret is dying of a cancer that invaded her bladder and then the rest of her. The realisation that this young, beautiful nymph has become middle-aged and very ill, though still dry and brave, is a shocking one. With alternating chapters set in the present and then flashing back to tell chronologically the story of their relationship, Yglesias depicts a marriage that is far from perfect and that has its problems as with all others but that, ultimately, is a very happy marriage. The clever structure means that the novel is both building up and winding down the relationship at the same time and it's only at the very end of the book that Margaret and Enrique have sex (structurally though not, of course, chronologically), as though their relationship is so deep and so intense and so all-consuming that readers could only hope to understand the power of this consummation after knowing their full story and how it ends.

As present-day Margaret begins to say her goodbyes to friends and family, the present-day chapters become harder and harder to read. While Margaret's impending death is very sad, it is the knowledge that Enrique will soon have to deal with the death of the love of his life that is particularly devastating. And yes, I did cry, although not until the final chapter, even though you have been well primed to expect the things that happen in the last chapter all along. Yet, the ending is still emotional and tense, suspenseful and lyrical, and is a fitting end for a beautiful book.

Superficially, A Happy Marriage is similar to Lynn Barber's An Education--both, ultimately, have the strong, life-long marriage of the protagonist at their centre, even if both deviate onto other topics such as their career, their upbringing and their past loves. Of course, the brusque, sharply witty irony of Barber's prose is a world away from the languorous poetry of Yglesias's writing. I read An Education but A Happy Marriage slipped over me, sucking me in and demanding my attention until it was finished.

It's perhaps unfair for me to add A Happy Marriage to my shortlist of the year when there are only six weeks for me to go off it, but I can't imagine it will enter my chart below number two.

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