A Happy Marriage
by Rafael Yglesias
Published by Scribner
384 pages, 2009
A Union Remembered
Reviewed by Diane Leach
Yglesias’s unabashedly autobiographical novel is an homage to his wife, artist Margaret Joskow, who died of bladder cancer in 2004. By turns heartbreaking, amusing, depressing, and joyous, A Happy Marriage is the evocation not only of the couple’s 27 years together, but of Margaret herself, a vibrant, imperfect, loving woman.
The book shifts between the couple’s first three weeks together, with their amusing if agonizing attempts to negotiate dating’s formalities, and their final three weeks of married life, when Margaret, decimated by cancer, is saying her final goodbyes. The contrast of the healthy, beautiful young Margaret and the bald, shivering shadow enduring horrible suffering is a shattering one, made more poignant by Yglesias’s painful attention to detail.
When Yglesias’s alter ego, writer Enrique Sabas, meets Margaret, he is 21 to her comparatively mature 24. Sabas is a high-school dropout whose smashing literary debut at age 16 is followed by a second book meeting with poor reviews from the same critics who fêted him earlier. His first serious relationship has ended badly. Though he knows himself intelligent, handsome, and able to impress others with his accomplishments, inwardly he is a mass of contradictory impulses. Though certain of his talent and dedicated to writing, he is embittered by the fickle publishing industry. Women, particularly vivacious, intense women like Margaret, attract him while scaring him witless.
The slender, blue-eyed woman who appears in his apartment one night, brought by mutual friend Bernard, is indeed a force of nature. A recent graduate of Cornell, Margaret hails from a wealthy family. Though she hides it, she is a talented painter, photographer, and graphic artist. She is also a tease, if a kindly one, fully aware of her impact on men. Enrique is immediately smitten. After a night spent talking with Enrique and Bernard, she invites Enrique to her annual “Orphans Dinner,” a holiday meal for friends without family nearby.
From this initial meeting the book cuts to the present moment: Margaret’s digestive tract has ceased working. Here Yglesias begins to recount, in gruesome detail, the lengths he must go to keep his wife alive. There are the three port lines inserted above Margaret’s breast, one intended for TPN (a form of intravenous feeding for those unable to eat or digest), antibiotics, and other medications. There is the percutaneous endoscopic gastrosomy, or PEG, a tube that empties Margaret’s stomach contents into an external bag, allowing her to at least wet her lips. There is the PEJ, or percutaneous endoscopic jejunum, a tube inserted in Margaret’s small bowel and pumped with a gruel-like nourishment. But the PEJ fails horribly: instead of moving downward, the gruel slowly floods her stomach and esophagus, backing up into Margaret’s throat, causing a terrible drowning sensation. The doctors decide TPN is the answer, and teach Enrique how to mix and administer the stuff, a complex routine dependent on utter sterility and tons of tubing. But as Margaret’s cancer progresses, the TPN proves useless: her weight plummets to one hundred three pounds.
Even Donald Hall, who chronicled wife Jane Kenyon’s death from Leukemia in Without and The Best Day the Worst Day is not quite so graphic as Yglesias, who is unsparing about the body’s worst depredations. Yet this telling, this detail, is oddly cleansing -- with the ugliness spelled out, bracketed by the younger, healthier Margaret, we truly see her, and the loving personality that shines through even as she enters a final coma.
The cuts between past and present are less jarring than they sound. Though Yglesias relies on the poles of youth and death, he writes broadly of the richer aspects of a long married life: sons Gregory and Max, their parents, Margaret’s best friend Lily, who helps Enrique select a plot, then helps Margaret choose her burial outfit. Enrique has much to say on the writer’s life, or lack thereof: a serious writer who hoped to focus his career on literature, his novels are comparatively unsuccessful, forcing him to earn money as a Hollywood screenwriter.
While much has been written about the autobiographical novel, or even ascribed to writers who have invented everything, it’s difficult to postulate about the affair that nearly destroys the marriage. The trouble begins with the birth of Gregory, the couple’s eldest child. Though Enrique adores his son, he is overwhelmed by the demanding minutiae of parenting. Adult conversation, or what is left of it, subsides into talk of strollers and preschools. Margaret is working part time at Newsweek, leaving Enrique an increasingly resentful caretaker. Worse, Margaret’s behavior is becoming unbearable. An utter control freak, she must decide everything, from the color of the bath towels to Enrique’s wardrobe. Yet she loathes formal planning, preferring to delight in the moment, a trait that maddens her more schedule-oriented husband. And then there is sex, or the lack thereof. Since Gregory’s birth the couple’s robust sex life has withered. Enrique is furious with Margaret. When opportunity presents itself in the form of Margaret’s good friend Sally, who is writing for television in Los Angeles, Enrique is drawn into a torrid affair. He comes perilously close to leaving Margaret, finally confronting her -- not with the affair, but with a serious threat of divorce.
Interestingly, the novel’s next visit to the past is nearly a decade later: Enrique is 43, Margaret, 47. The couple are vacationing in Italy. Enrique is still reeling from the death of his father, Guillermo. At the hotel he receives a fax from his Los Angeles agent containing an important job offer. Margaret, miffed by the interruption, goes off to bathe. Enrique, wishing to placate her, follows her into the bathroom, where he observes his nude wife in the bath.
All women should be so fortunate as to have an Enrique in their lives. Margaret has aged, but exercise and genetics have kept her trim. True, her breasts are smaller from breastfeeding, her stomach and behind softer. Periodically she threatens to have plastic surgery, striking fear in Enrique’s heart:
Enrique’s viewpoint is a welcome change from female beauty’s impossible standards, representative of the many ways his is a departure from the Jim Harrison school of masculine toughness. This is not to say Enrique is weak -- far from it -- but his is a subtler strength. He is a man capable of assessing his wife’s worst flaws while recognizing her tremendous strengths. He also understands that she has made him the man he is -- an adult, a parent, a husband -- and he cannot imagine how he will continue without her. Like fellow widower and compatriot in words Donald Hall, Enrique Sabas is soon to be without. Like Hall, he will wring a beautiful story from his loss, one that will take our breaths away while wishing it never had to be written. | July 2009
Diane Leach lives in northern California with her husband and cat. When not reading or writing, she regularly burns herself in the kitchen.