Ever since Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl made us all think twice about going to sleep next to the same person every single night until death (or, you know, faked death) do us part, I’ve been just a little more aware of how marriage is portrayed in literature. That is: generally not so great. (Plus, wedding season is steadily winding down, and as everyone who’s ever encountered the newly nuptial-ed knows, sh*t hasn’t really gotten real until you’re dragging all that honeymoon baggage up the stairs of your third story walk-up.)
Let’s be honest: happy marriages are nice and all, but isn’t it really the complicated, messy, rollercoaster ride marriages that make for the best stories? At least in fiction? And maybe just once in a while in real life, if the couple suddenly riding the rollercoaster of marital strife is your sister and her husband who always act like their relationship is so much more profound than the one you have with your cat, when everyone can see it IS SO NOT? You know what I mean.
Let’s just all agree that happily married or not, sharing the already-too-small medicine cabinet comes with a never ending sequence of highs and lows. Lucky for you, literature has tried to make sense of the subject of marriage since stories were being written on cave walls. Here are 10 novels that will make you think about marriage a little differently — and one play that is just too good to leave out.
The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger
George Stillman and Amina Mazid live worlds apart: he is from Rochester, New York, and she is from Bangladesh. The two meet online and plan for Amina to move to the United States, where they will wed. Despite all the early makings of a fairytale, the blending of habits, cultures, and histories comes with every kind of unforeseeable challenge that all couples ultimately encounter. This novel depicts a full portrait of a marriage — successes and failures, joys and disappointments, unmet and exceeded expectations.
Us by Michael Kimball
This novel is definitely a tearjerker. When a husband wakes up to discover his wife has had a seizure overnight and is in a coma, he faithfully remains by her hospital bedside, doing everything he can to try and wake her up. Us is about a marriage overwhelmed by devastating illness, and a lifelong love so deep nothing can destroy it.
One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus
One Thousand White Women tells the story of the covert, controversial, (and imagined) "Brides for Indians" program launched by the Grant administration, and intended to assimilate Native Americans into the expanding world of American pioneers. The all-volunteer program, offered to women largely from prison and mental health institutions, facilitated the marriages of 1000 white women to members of the Northern Cheyenne Indian tribe — a marital culture shock for both parties, inevitably.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
If you've ever wondered where the famous quote: "happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" comes from, look no further than this novel. Anna Karenina features the extremes of marriage: the blissfully happy (Kitty and Levin) and the utterly miserable (Anna and Count Alexei). Add some infidelity and unrequited love into the mix, and you've got all the makings of a tragic love story.
The Glassblower's Breath by Sunetra Gupta
Written in the second person — an experimental form that I totally love — The Glassblower's Breath tells the story of a single day in the life of a young woman who is trapped between conflicting desires. Though she is arranged to be married to a man who loves her, but whom she isn't sure she loves back, this protagonist struggles in her relationships with two other men in her life as well: a friend from college who meets her intellectual needs, and butcher for whom she feels an intense physical attraction. This novel is a parable for anyone who has ever questioned the logic of monogamy.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
They say third time's the charm... maybe. Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God is the story of three marriages weathered by Janie Crawford, a woman first married off to an old man by her grandmother, then married to a controlling and abusive politician, and finally married to a much younger man named Tea Cake who, while certainly not perfect, is at least a man of Janie's choosing. Naturally, just as this story seems to be arriving at its happy ending, tragedy strikes. What isn't tragic about this novel is how much you'll fall in love with Janie.
The Dive From Clausen's Pier by Ann Packer
23-year-old Carrie Bell knows her engagement to high school sweetheart Mike Mayer needs to end, she just doesn't know how to tell him. Then Mike is paralyzed after breaking his neck while diving into a shallow lake, and Carrie's obligations to him suddenly become even more unmanageable. In a move that shocks friends and family, and infuriates Mike's parents, Carrie flees to New York to start a life of her own. The Dive From Clausen's Pier is all about the limitations of love, and the sacrifices people make for one another.
Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund
Inspired by Moby-Dick, Sena Jeter Naslund's novel, Ahab's Wife, is about the woman left behind when Captain Ahab sailed the seas in obsessive pursuit of the great, white whale. Living almost entirely alone in a lighthouse, Una spends months, and then years, with no word from her husband Ahab. Ahab's Wife tells the story of a marriage that has taken a backseat to a dangerous obsession, and of Una, who is a woman of great character, resilience, and hope.
Nightwood by Djuna Barns
Recognized as a a landmark of feminist and lesbian literature, Nightwood tells a story of same-sex relationships and marriages, transgender experiences, and infidelity. Written more than 75 years ago, the novel focuses less on plot and more on the emotional, internal lives of the characters, and explores the intersections of love and identity.
The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi
This novel by Afghan-American writer Nadia Hashimi tells the story of two marriages that take place generations apart, but share some crucial similarities — and some significant differences. Rahima is a young girl living in 2007 Kabul, while Shekiba, her great, great, great grandmother, is living in early 20th century Afghanistan. Both women get a brief taste of freedom before being forced to marry against their will, but that freedom is enough to give them the strength to survive the rest of their lives.
Lysistrata by Aristophanes
In this classic Greek play, the heroine, Lysistrata, has taken it upon herself to end the Peloponnesian War — by convincing all the women of Greece to withhold sex from their husbands until they agree to put down their weapons and establish a peace treaty. Not a bad idea, eh? (Although I'm sure every marriage counselor on Earth would disagree.) Lysistrata is brilliant and hilarious, just like her namesake play.
Image: Morgan Cauch/flickr