Not So Happily Ever After

I expect most people are aware that there’s been a royal wedding taking place today. There were fairy tale carriages and splendid guards on horseback and kings and queens and cheering crowds and the palely gorgeous Westminster Abbey, an ‘intimate’ venue for 2,000 guests. If we still have our monarchy in the UK, it’s probably because we have all these excellent props and it would be a shame to see them go to waste. Plus, all our broadcasters get to use the word ‘pageantry’ a lot, and it’s a very good word. My favourite moment in the whole thing was a camera shot of the world’s religious representatives, all sitting side by side against a wall. In my imagination I couldn’t help but see a banner unfurl above them, on which was written ‘Special Edition. Collector’s Set’.  Weddings make me uneasy – they are such a performance of optimistic fantasies; all that pomp and splendour around promises that can never be perfectly kept in complex, difficult reality. On the one hand, we need that level of hope to get us through life, but on the other, no one tells you quite how much tolerance and flexibility you need to get though marriage. The Bishop of London gave a really rather good address, in which he said marriage was an important step in becoming the selves god wanted us to be, and that it was a chance for us to overcome our basic human selfishness. I thought that was a very astute way of putting it; a successful marriage really does need each partner to find proper, loving altruism towards the other, and the difficulty of that spiritual task should not be underestimated.

It may seem a tad out of keeping with the spirit of the day to be reviewing a collection of short stories by the American writer, Michelle Latiolais, entitled Widow. But it is a) a truly excellent collection of short stories, the best I have read in a long time and b) it is excellent precisely because it has so much to say of interest about long-term partnerships. Out of 17 stories, five concern what must, I think, have been a real-life experience of the author of being unexpectedly widowed after 18 years of a happy marriage. We are not told until the final pages how the husband died (the circumstances are shocking), instead we are right up close to the absurd process that is the continuation of life within full-blown grief. Although that sounds ghastly and miserable – and it is clearly no fun at all – these are not depressing stories. There is an emotional vitality to them, a clarity of insight, a sense for the ridiculous and the poignant that make them simply truthful and engaging.

They are surrounded by what looks at first glance to be stories covering a wide variety of situations and concerns. The story about a woman’s trip to a male lap-dancing club that I liked so much is here; there’s a story about the wife of an academic, saying goodbye to his students who’ve been round for a social evening and realising her husband might be having an affair with one of them; the story of a young woman being chatted up by her writing class teacher in a way that she really doesn’t appreciate; the story of a wife deeply in love with her husband who is persuaded by him (in the interests of his academic research) to go to Africa and eat the same diet as chimpanzees for a month; the story of a woman doing the ironing and reflecting on the differences between cotton and linen and synthetic fibres, how the former protect the skin and the latter – especially in the case of fires – endanger it. They seem at first glance disparate. And yet as I read, so I began to feel there was an underlying interest in our profound sensitivities. We are sensitive in so many ways, more than we ever give credit for – sensitive to what we have against our skin, sensitive to people who do not think the way we do, sensitive to the diet we grow accustomed to, sensitive to tiny clues and gestures in the body language of other people. Our being in the world takes place in a myriad of interactions between skins, minds, fantasies, and more often than not, those interactions rub us up the wrong way and make us uncomfortable.

So this is where the long-term partnership fits in because here, when it works, we find ourselves cradled and soothed. Even the partnerships that don’t work have the blessing of familiarity about them, enough harmony and coordination to give us a sense of comfort and safety. When we lose a partner, we lose the body that fits against ours, the mind that choreographs with our own, the routines and the habits that smooth the rough edges off of life, the place where we can be at peace and at rest. Our partners are our literal human shields, and the effect when they are removed is akin to brutal exposure to the elements once again. The narrator’s grief in her widowhood is portrayed in a series of stories that show her sense of vulnerability and isolation, and the insufficient attempts she makes to bolster herself in the world. But these are not melancholy stories, as I said; they are courageous and honest. The cover, which I think is particularly beautiful, is taken from a fifteenth century tarot card depicting the Queen of Swords, representative of widowhood, separation and mourning, but also the woman who is wise through suffering. These are indeed wise, beautiful and evocative stories that reveal the intricacy of our inner lives with delicacy and restraint.

14 thoughts on “Not So Happily Ever After

  1. Weddings make me uneasy – they are such a performance of optimistic fantasies; all that pomp and splendour around promises that can never be perfectly kept in complex, difficult reality.

    You’ve articulated my thoughts exactly. (In addition I have mixed feelings about the whole history of institutionalized marriage as a way of transferring women and their children from man to man as property, which is particularly pronounced when the wedding in question is royal, but that’s another story.)

    This is really a beautiful post all round. Loved your descriptions of the sensitivity and succor of long-term relationships in your final paragraphs.

  2. Thank you for introducing me to an author I hadn’t heard of before. I wonder how you came across her? I like the idea of stories that deal with this difficult topic in a lively, honest way.

  3. Ah, yes, the Queen of Swords. I like the Queen of Swords. Which reminds me it’s been absurd ages since I did anyone’s Tarot cards. Must fetch them back out and see whether Kate and William are going to work out. :p

  4. What a profoundly moving and wise post, on a day when we have all been so caught up in the joy and hope of two young people getting married. I love your description of what must be given to marriage – tolerance, flexibility, altruism, in order to derive its benefits of cradling, soothing, protection. And what it means to have those benefits, and to lose them suddenly. A widower friend of mine told me, in the years of grief following her husband’s death, of the superhuman gathering of energy that each day required, simply to live it through, with nothing left over to do anything productive or creative. I’ll look out for the book, and hope it is as moving and thought provoking as your review.

  5. I’ve been thinking about your post overnight and all morning. And I suspect I’ll come back to it again – because it speaks to where I am at the moment with thinking about my relationship. I agree with other commenters – it’s timely prompt to think about partnerships and not just the big day. I’ve read a few other books recently (titles sadly not on the tip of my tongue) which were affectionate, mature and realistic about the way people grow with and through each other. I especially appreciated that they weren’t blind to the frustrations and accommodations that come with all the good stuff in long term commitments.

  6. Like Dorothy, I’m wondering how you came across Michelle Latiolais? I know of her because she’s a fixture of the southern California literary scene–can’t tell you how many author readings I’ve been to where she’s been the moderator. But I have never read her fiction. Now I’m going to have to! Looks quite interesting.

  7. The cover of this book is really gorgeous–I’d not heard of her before, but now I will keep an eye out for the book. You’re so right in what you say in your first paragraph that is indeed a lot of splendor for something that is so hard after all the pomp and ceremony. Too bad there is nothing like it when a marriage dissolves, but maybe that is a cynical thing to say! 😉

  8. Caroline – yes, I can see you enjoying this one as it’s very rich and intriguing. That tarot deck is just gorgeous! Do you read tarot cards too? I’ve read for many a year but just have the one pack, a very traditional Ryder-Waite.

    Emily – aw thank you, what a nice comment. I know exactly what you mean about wives-as-property. I have a really intriguing book to read (as soon as I can fit it in!) entitled The English Marriage by Maureen Waller which is all about that decidedly inglorious period when women had zero rights within marriage. It looks full of stories to make my toes curl! 🙂

    Lilian – they are very beautiful stories and I feel quite sure you would like them – I’d love to know what you think if you do read them.

    Melody and Becca – it’s one of those books I feel I can recommend because I’m fairly sure any one (and certainly any literary woman) would get a lot out of it. Let me know what you think if you read it!

    Dorothy – I couldn’t agree more – dealing with difficult topics in honest lively ways is one of my favourite things, I think! A friend of mine read the book, thought I’d like it, and because he had himself written a published review, gave my name to the publishers and I got a copy of the book sent. I would never have come across it all by myself, you are quite right!

    Jenny – lol! Stick a video of that on youtube and you would garner a lot of instantly publicity, I think! 🙂

    voula – you’ve actually given me more insight into the post than I had myself – I do think that we exchange patience and tolerance for those qualities of security and comfort. It’s not a bad transaction at all. Thank you for your lovely words and I hope you enjoy the book if you read it. I really did admire it.

    Rose – I have a special interest in relationships and their transformative powers. Marriage is such a long-term submission to the power of personal change that we have to try to only marry people who make us our best self more often than they make us our worst (I don’t think you can avoid a bit of both!). A special place is reserved in my heart for all literature that’s really honest about what happens – in all family situations. I think it’s a huge disservice to women to gloss the difficulties of motherhood, and to men and women both to cover over the full emotional spectrum of marriage. Good luck with your own contemplation.

    Gentle Reader – Ahhh, I see, because she does seem to be have status without having fame. Well, a good friend of mine read the book and reviewed it professionally, and thought I would like it. So he gave my name to the publishers and they sent me a copy. I was very grateful! Now I find she has written two novels, one of which is still available, but expensive in all the places I can source it. I will get around that eventually!

    Danielle – there really ought to be better rituals than time and money spent with lawyers and courts of law, no? And someone ought to write a similar book of stories for divorcees – think how many millions of people that would interest! And I really do love that cover – it is just so beautiful.

  9. I use mostly the Ryder-Waite but I love the variety and so I started to collect them. Reproductions of course, not originals.
    I like to use the Mystical Mlle Lenormand, the are nice afew other things but not very regularly. I like it when I mention it and people start to laugh and then after a while aske me whether I couldn’t do a reading “Not that I belive in this but I still would like to …” Lol.
    On my German blog I write occasionally about oracles and the like. I’m a huge C.G. Jung fan even wanted to undergo the training in Zürich but time is such a harsh mistress.

  10. I have not heard of this author or this collection but it sounds really good! I love how you tied it in with the royal wedding too. I agree, the cover is striking. But I wish they hadn’t cut off the queen’s head.

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