It’s been over a year since I last joined the Literary Wives bookclub, but I’m happy to be back! And what a book to come back with… Please be sure to visit my fellow Literary Wives’ blogs to read their reviews as well!
- Emily from The Bookshelf of Emily J.
- Lynn from Smoke & Mirrors
- Kay from What Me Read
- Naomi from Consumed by Ink
The Happy Marriage: A Novel by Tahar Ben Jelloun; published 2012 by Editions Gallimard; translated 2016 by Melville House
This book was distinctive in the Literary Wives bookclub for a few reasons:
- This is the first we’ve read that doesn’t include “wife” or “wives” in the title. We decided to make this shift because what we’re really exploring is women’s experiences of marriage—and we didn’t want to miss out on the great stories in books that don’t fall into the title stereotype.
- The author is a man, and the majority of the book is written from a man’s perspective.
- This is the first translation we’ve read!
Simply for the fact that it was unique, I found the book interesting. I can’t say that I enjoyed it, but it gave me a lot to think about.
As you might guess, the marriage featured is anything but happy. The narrator is a famous painter who has had a stroke caused by stress. As he explains the events that led to his stroke, it’s obvious that he blames his wife and their marital issues.
Right from the start, there are problems in their marriage. His wife is twenty years younger than he is, and from a poor rural village. His family disapproves of the match. She feels out of place with him, and after two years of peace, their “happy” marriage starts to crumble. He portrays his wife as controlling, harpy, and manipulative. In all of his friends’ peaceful marriages, they confess that peace reigns in their house because they, the husbands, have given up all control to their wives. The painter asks, “Was married life impossible unless one of the two transformed into a shadow?”
Before long, the painter has started an endless string of affairs, unashamedly pursuing other women right under his wife’s nose. He writes that his wife verbally abuses him, throws things at him, spies on him, and attempts to control his professional life—once even cancelling a trip to a conference he had been invited to.
He spends quite a bit of time ruminating on where their differences lie. It all seems to come back to the expectations they brought with them into the marriage. She holds a highly idealized, romantic view of marriage that sounds nice, but actually doesn’t allow either person any freedom or individuality:
“As far as she was concerned, a wife and husband weren’t supposed to have secrets between them. To her, a couple was a union where one plus one equaled one. …None of them mentioned the existence of a perfect place where two individuals could work on their relationship while still respecting each other’s differences, not to mention their right to disagree.”
On his own part, he confesses early on that he wanted a sweet, docile wife to settle down with, and he keeps hoping throughout the book that she’ll change. They really didn’t know each other’s personalities before they married—and certainly hadn’t talked about these hidden expectations.
About three-quarters of the way through the book, the painter’s narrative ends, and his wife tells her story. In a brief rebuttal, she tells her side of affairs, describing the painter as a cheap, miserly bore who doesn’t allow her any freedom so that she’s forced to be manipulative. She, too, admits that she had romantic expectations for their marriage:
“I thought of myself as one of the heroines of those novels and believed in all of it. The transition from fairy tale to reality proved difficult, very difficult indeed. …My mistake was to think people can change. None of us change, not least of which a man who’s already lived out most of his life. …We were not made to be together. That was my mistake, our mistake.”
She readily admits that she is vengeful—giving her enemies much more pain than they might have caused her. Unfortunately for her husband, she focuses her hateful energies on him. At the end of the book, he wants to divorce her, but she refuses to allow it, instead determining that she will become the docile wife he desires so that they’ll always be together.
What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
This question is hard to answer for this book. This wife is one of the most unsympathetic characters I’ve ever read. But—I think the book does illustrate a couple important truths about marriage.
- We all bring expectations into relationships. Our spouses and significant others will undoubtedly fail to live up to those at some point. When that happens, we have to re-assess those expectations: Are they worth holding onto? What matters more—my vision of the relationship, or the relationship itself?
- We often don’t bring the best of ourselves to the relationship. The painter remarks at one point that he thinks his wife might have a split personality disorder. Then later he confesses that she doesn’t; she just reserves the best of herself for other people. That can certainly be true in relationships. What if we all brought the best of ourselves to the most intimate relationship in our lives? How would that change the relationship?
I’m curious to hear what others thought and took away from the book. If you’ve reviewed this book before, please leave a comment to your blog post, or post it on the Literary Wives Facebook page. Thanks!