Friday, December 26, 2008

Married Life

I'm back to Tolstoy's line again - “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way“. If you substitute 'marriage' for 'family' it might seem to apply just as well. Phillip Lopate's Two Marriages consists of two novellas about married couples who, other than their common setting of Brooklyn, could not be more different.

The first story, “The Stoic's Marriage”, is written as a series of journal entries made by Gordon, a pudgy forty-something bachelor who discovers love with the beautiful Rita, an attractive Filipino whom he meets when she becomes the home health aide to his dying mother. His early entries rhapsodize about Rita's perfection, but as the months roll on things become much more complicated. You've heard of the 'unreliable narrator'. I guess I would categorize Gordon as the clueless narrator. The reader figures out long before he does that Rita may not be all that she seems. But Gordon plugs on confidently, explaining his hilariously cockeyed theories as to why Rita's motives are pure. His relentless stoicism in the face of all his setbacks is amusing and heartwarming.

In the second story “Eleanor, or, The Second Marriage” we meet Eleanor and Frank (a play on the Roosevelts?) who seem to be the couple who have everything. They live in a large Brooklyn brownstone, hold satisfying jobs, and have a circle of interesting friends. This is the second marriage for both, and they pride themselves on having evolved into partners who can truly love and understand each other. The story takes place over the course of a July weekend during which they hold an impromptu dinner party for an assortment of friends and family. Eleanor prepares a “simple meal” involving individual Cornish game hens, a zucchini vegetable terrine, wild rice with scallions and cranberries, hors d'oeuvres, hot biscuits and sun-dried-tomato bread, mesclun salad, Greek olives, chutneys, cheeses and two desserts. It's hard not to hate her, isn't it? I'm hoping the desserts were store-bought.

By the time Monday morning dawns, it is clear that Eleanor and Frank are really not much better than Gordon in understanding the workings of a marriage. All their sophistication doesn't save them from its pitfalls; if Gordon asks too few questions, Frank asks too many. Lopate does a masterful job in these two disparate tales of showing the many and varied difficulties of married life.

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