The Complexities Of Modern Marriage, As Explored By 13 Books

by E. Ce Miller

Run an online search for “millennials” and “marriage” and the results will run the gamut from articles charting millennials’ refusal to marry, to others espousing why members of Gen Y are decidedly better at saying “I Do” and sticking to it. The reasons are as varied as the claims: one study reports that fewer than four out of 10 millennials are currently married, based on the economic inaccessibility of marriage; another shows the overall divorce rate in the U.S. declined by 18 percent between 2008 and 2016, largely due to millennials. Typical millennials marry and have children later than previous generations — or they skip both altogether.

Yet, from reality shows and dating apps to celebrity gossip and books about marriage, American culture is still obsessed with some version of that church-and-state-recognized happily ever after — even as many are postponing or abstaining from the ritual.

So what gives? Why are so many so compelled to say yes to the dress — but actually, on second thought, no to all of it? Why are there so many books about marriage, when — at least as an institution — it’s no longer necessary or practical, and is increasingly less desired?

Perhaps, it’s in part because the story of marriage has changed? Millennials — at least the ones I know — are increasingly aware that marriage is everything that comes after "I Do." It’s agreeing to be a lifetime’s worth of manifestations of yourself alongside another, with results that can be infuriating and devastating, beautiful and downright weird. Everything, essentially, that every 19th century novel that ends in a wedding leaves out.

The marriage rate may be declining, but literature that captures the good, the bad, and the ugly of marriage definitely hasn’t. And if there’s one thing these writers and millennials know, it’s that “happily ever after” can just as easily mean happily ever solo as it does paired up. Here are 13 books that capture the nuances of modern marriage.

'Fates and Furies' by Lauren Groff

Telling a quarter century-long story of one relationship, Fates and Furies tackles marriage from two perspectives: first the husband’s, then the wife’s. What readers learn is that not only does every story have two sides, every marriage has two sides (sometimes more) as well. Layered, complicated, filled with secrets, lies, sacrifices, and compromises, this novel shows what parallel evolution over a lifetime looks like, and what we can learn about ourselves from our partners.

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'The Hopefuls' by Jennifer Close

Anyone who has ever given up their own lives in order to move across the country for their spouse’s job will understand the plight of the couple in Jennifer Close’s The Hopefuls. Based on her own experience of leaving her career for her husband’s job on President Obama’s first campaign, Close’s couple is frustrated and bitter, sure — but also really, really funny. If the pitfalls of marriage don’t bring out a couple’s sense of humor, at least sometimes, then we’re all probably doomed.

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'Stay with Me' by Ayobami Adebayo

Another novel that tells the story of a marriage from two perspectives, Stay with Me is filled with fable and folktale, the push-and-pull between traditional marriage and modern manifestations of the rite of passage. The couple — Nigerian and forming the dynamics of their marriage during a period of political upheaval in the country — intimately learns what happens when the outside world influences your inner one, when the culture of your country has a hand in defining the culture of your marriage: whether your like it or not.

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'Other People's Houses' by Abbi Waxman

It can be easy to feel like the couple next door, or the one down the block, has it all figured out. But peel the roof off their house, and chances are their laundry is just as dirty — or even dirtier — than your own. In Other People's Houses, four families living in the suburbs of Los Angeles grapple with illness and exhaustion, bedroom boredom and mundane conversation. They’re all pulled together by one earth-shaking affair; one that reveals the grass isn’t always greener on your neighbor’s lawn.

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'The Newlyweds' by Nell Freudenberger

The couple in Nell Frudenberger’s The Newlyweds meets as many modern couples do: online. But rather than swiping right on someone who lives down the block, this couple lives across the world from one another. They decide to get married anyway: sight unseen. Though their inevitably challenging merging of different personal habits, unfamiliar perspectives, and different histories has the added weight of their seemingly-disparate cultures, the struggle to meld two very particular lives into one will be relatable to all couples.

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'What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank' by Nathan Englander

The title story of this fiction collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, introduces readers to two couples getting together over a simple evening of vodka and marijuana — an evening that will change the dynamics of their marriages irreversibly and forever. While playing a morbid childhood game during which they speculate who among their non-Jewish friends would save them in a Holocaust, some realize the people they thought would be first to save their lives might not be, and the people they thought they’d risk their own lives for, maybe not.

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'An American Marriage' by Tayari Jones

Just a year into this couple’s marriage, the husband is sent to prison for a rape that he didn’t commit. With over a decade of separation ahead of them, the lifetime of dreams each had imagined for themselves is suddenly shattered. Told through the letters the two write to each other during the prison sentence, An American Marriage portrays the devastation that can happen to any marriage when life gets in the way of the life you’d planned.

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'Interpreter of Maladies' by Jhumpa Lahiri

In A Temporary Matter, one of the many dynamic and devastating stories in Jhumpa Lahiri’s fiction collection, Interpreter of Maladies, a married couple has recently been devastated by a stillborn baby. As a result, they’re only able to speak to one another in a totally darkened house. As they grow apart, their relationship continues to unravel — and their refusal to literally see each other results in their ultimate inability to know each other any longer.

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'Big Little Lies' by Liane Moriarty

Every marriage has their secrets. Some are small and harmless, and others are so huge they can pose a threat to one’s very identity. Big Little Lies is filled with the second kind of secret: the kind that hides behind the bedroom doors least expected by friends and neighbors. Just because a marriage might seem ideal on the outside doesn’t mean it is.

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'The Time Traveler’s Wife' by Audrey Niffenegger

Reviews of The Time Traveler’s Wife span from shelving this novel along the great romances of modern literature to looking at it as an indictment of the long-perpetuated fantasy surrounding “happily ever after”. From my perspective, this novel basically tells the story of a married women who spends the vast majority of her life doing everything on her own, while waiting for her husband to pop in an out at random intervals, because he’s a “time traveler” and “can’t help it”. Yeah… we’ve all heard that one before.

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'Revolutionary Road' by Richard Yates

Critical analysis of the institution of marriage is one thing — critical analysis of that same institution as it manifests in the suburbs is another thing entirely. The 1950’s American couple in Revolutionary Road goes all the way to Paris to try to save their marriage — and themselves — with unsurprisingly unsuccessful results. Paris can solve a lot of things (writer’s block, cheese cravings) but a devastated marriage probably isn’t one of them.

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'A Disorder Peculiar to the Country' by Ken Kalfus

A Disorder Peculiar to the Country begins just as the Twin Towers fall in New York City. One married couple narrowly escapes the disaster — but neither knows it until they return home. And in an unexpected twist, they’re each bitterly disappointed to discover their spouse is still alive. A marriage gone totally wrong against the backdrop of global tumult, this novel is about as dark a comedy about marriage as you’ll get.

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'Gone Girl' by ‎Gillian Flynn

The ultimate feminist domestic thriller, Gone Girl is the darkest secret fantasy of any wife who has ever become so underwhelmed by the institution of marriage she’s desperate to get even — with her husband, but also with the idea of marriage itself. This is another novel that reminds readers that every marriage, like every story, has two sides. And sometimes those sides are downright terrifying.

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