“Love and marriage,” says the song, “go together like a horse and carriage.”
Or do they?
In his latest novel, Love Is a Canoe, Ben Schrank casts a critical eye at this age-old assumption. Love’s quick current can carry a couple into marriage, but is it possible for two people to keep their romance and passion afloat over the long course of a shared life? Or must love mellow with time into a calmer, less volatile emotion, one tempered with compromise and lowered expectations?
Tough questions, which Schrank explores in the story of Emily Babson, a beautiful but shy New Yorker who makes her living as a brand consultant, expertly choosing words to describe other people’s concepts and products. As a girl, she read and re-read a book called Marriage Is a Canoe, a self-help title of Schrank’s invention that, with her parents undergoing a messy divorce, provided young Emily a model of how a healthy, loving couple should treat one another.
The author of Marriage Is a Canoe, Peter Herman, also a child of divorce, wove the book out of anecdotes pulled from a teenage summer spent in the care of his grandparents – a season filled with fishing, berry pie, and folksy, home-spun advice about marriage shared by the very-much-in-love Pop and Bess. Upon its publication in the late ’70s, when Herman was in his early twenties and not yet married, the book became a bestseller, one kept perennially in print by the publisher. Think of a Chicken Soup for the Soul for marriage, each chapter ending with a fortune-cookie aphorism: Married couples should spend quality time together each day, in their metaphorical canoe. They should hold hands and paddle together. They should compromise about setting their course. They should make-out.
Problem is, the ideals Emily derived from Herman’s book don’t match what she’s experiencing in married life. Her husband, a handsome, outgoing man named Eli Corelli, occupies himself launching a speciality bike company rather than holding his wife’s hand, and soon enough, his Girl Friday at the office moves beyond being just his “work wife.” In the aftermath of Eli’s affair, an unsettling time of broken trust and seesawing emotions, Emily wins a contest that Herman’s publisher devises to re-ignite interest in Marriage Is a Canoe. She and Eli get to spend an all-expenses paid weekend with Herman in the picturesque town of Millerton, New York, where the marriage-guru will counsel them on healing their relationship.
“I am ready for an enlightening conversation about what we may or may not ask of love and marriage,” Emily says in the winning essay that should wrote. But mostly, in her weekend with Herman, Emily learns what she shouldn’t ask – which is much. Herman, like Emily’s husband, Eli, cheated on his wife, having a long but largely staid marriage in which he and his wife just didn’t talk about some important things. The only advice he has to offer is terribly unromantic, really. Don’t ask too much of one another. Accept that people change, adultery happens. Forgive one another. Herman’s late-life advice sounds very different from that of his schmaltzy book, though just as cliched.
While Emily’s relationship comprises the heart of the novel, Schrank also tells the story of Stella Petrovic, the young editor who designed the contest, a career go-getter hoping to soar up the corporate ranks with her bold marketing plan. Peter Herman’s story unfolds as well, a man at the opposite side of life, winding down, thinking about how he wants to spend his last decades now that his wife has died. The chapters alternate perspectives between Emily, Peter, Stella, and, especially in the beginning, excerpts from the book that looms so large for all of them – Marriage Is a Canoe.
Through the characters’ relationship to that book, Schrank demonstrates the power of narrative to, in Emily’s words, explain people to themselves, to give them a model upon which to build their lives, to structure their decisions and neatly explain messy, sometimes unspeakable emotions. He also demonstrate its limits. No story, no matter how lovely or expertly told, can carry us light-of-heart through each day of a marriage: the tough decisions couples face living together, the fact that no love eradicates the lure of other lovers, the boredom that comes of day-after-day, year-after-year with the same person, the difficult, unglamorous dark-side of coupledom.
I’m married, and, like Peter Herman, a writer. Schrank has gotten, I think, a lot of this material right in his novel. The long scene of Emily and Eli being counseled by Peter Herman is as well-wrought, honest, and un-sentimental depiction of a couple working through their issues as I’ve ever read.
Arriving at this moment in all its fullness requires backstory, a backstory that, over the course of two hundred pages, crawls along. Schrank’s prose proves strong but serviceable; his sentences rarely arrest the attention. The game Schrank plays by including excerpts from Marriage Is a Canoe seems a hard one to win – we’re meant to recognize both the self-help title’s dreck and appeal. A more successful gambit comes later in the novel, when Schrank presents snippets from the book by having characters read it, even by having them search for sections that they think will comfort them. In these moments, his point about our culture’s use of self-help narratives comes across best: that a story like Marriage Is a Canoe, hackneyed and rife with syrupy aphorisms, is both a cheat – it tells us nothing of reality – and also something very powerful. Like religion, our rational minds don’t fully accept its truths, yet we find them compelling to turn over, to contemplate, to try and pull some value from, all the same.
“I told you my book isn’t about true love. It’s about how to have a good marriage. They’re a bit different, don’t you think?” Herman tells Emily, and he’s right. Though the novel’s title and ending edges away from this suggestion by implying that the canoe metaphor applies equally to love and marriage, Schrank’s book at its best moments shows how love – romantic, passionate love – and marriage are very different things. They may go together in the linear sense, but not often in the actual sense, at least not over the long haul. No matter how many self-help books we read, we may never realize the pie-eyed emotional ideals of our youth, or if we do so, only fleetingly. And yet, life goes on, and we never stop trying, a fact that explains the unending popularity of self-help books like the one in Schrank’s novel.