From Helplessness to Competence

Reviewed By

Lily Tuck’s engaging new novel I Married You For Happiness explores a 40-year-plus marriage from the vantage of one night.

Lily Tuck is a masterful, insightful, readable writer, who, in her latest, goes over some very familiar ground in a winning way. Of her four novels I’ve only read The News From Paraguay; I’m looking forward to getting my hands on her others.

I Married You For Happiness took hold of me at once, and held me throughout with the comfortable sense that I was in the hands of a novelist who knows what she’s doing . At the same time, it felt like somethings I’d read before—it cleaves to the stereotypical subject of so much American literary fiction in telling a slim story about marriage and adultery among the well-educated and well-heeled. There’s nothing surprising in this narrative of the life of a couple—Nina is a painter; Philip is a professor of mathematics; they’re parents and travelers and occasional adulterers; their 40-plus-year marriage ends in his sudden death. What’s compelling here is not the bare bones of Tuck’s story, but how she gives it to us. Tuck is concerned with the nature of memory, with the running story one tells oneself about oneself. One of her epigrams from Pascal reads: “We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future … [T]he fact is that the present usually hurts.” With this story, Tuck explores the way a woman recounts to herself the story of her own marriage, at the same time that, through the course of the single night in which the novel takes place, she assimilates the death of her husband beside the bed where lies his cooling corpse.

Nina free associates—did Philip really love her? Would rereading Plato be of comfort now? Should she plunge into a study of philosophy? Or Zen? These thoughts plunge Nina into the past, where she revisits—retells—the story of her Paris courtship, their honeymoon in Mexico. Tuck deftly weaves into Nina’s ruminations themes derived from Philip’s own college teaching syllabus: what is infinity, what is probability, what are amiable numbers, perfect numbers? Philip’s relationship to mathematics and logic provides a mirror of the marriage, points of entry that Tuck uses as she tacks back and forth through the couples’ decades together. She gives us Lily imagining how Philip would present her infidelity, had he known of it, as a classroom exercise: “if we know for certain that my wife is not having an affair, the probability of the event would be 0; but, should we discover that she is having an affair, the probability would be 1. The numerical measure of probability can range from 0 to 1—from impossibility to certainty. Thus, the probability of my wife being unfaithful would be 1 over 2 because there are only the two possibilities: that she is having an affair or that she is not having an affair.”

In a different kind of imaginative leap, Nina populates her first long evening of mourning with elaborate fantasies about the unanswered questions between her and Philip: there was, before they ever met, a young woman, Iris, whom Philip drove home from a party and whom he killed by accident in a wreck. Nina wonders if Iris was Philip’s sweetheart, speculates that she may have been pregnant and about to tell him when he crashes the car, silencing her forever. She leans over her husband’s body, full of wonder, wishing for him to come back, at least in part in order to fill her in, to present answers. She thinks also of Lorna, the astrophysicist, who came to dinner at her house, ate her cake, and whose relationship with Philip is an open question. And there’s Louise, Nina and Philip’s daughter, who enters the novel only in her mother’s flashback thoughts of her childhood colic and adult anger, and in her resolution to postpone the inevitable phone call until morning, even as she invents the course of the young woman’s last hours of not knowing her father has died.

I Married You For Happiness has a compact elegance at less than 200 pages, and with sections that are sometimes just a paragraph, or a few paragraphs, in length, sometimes reads with the stark brilliance of a poem. With lightness, touching down here, and here, and here, Tuck mimics the gingerly internal process of Nina’s night. She is constantly shuttling into the past, she is constantly startled to find that her husband, who lay down for a short nap before dinner, is dead. Each time she makes the discovery, it’s a little different, and her ideas shoot off in another direction. “What’s it like to be dead? Is it how it was before he was born, before he was alive?… She cannot imagine a life without Philip. Nor does she want to.”

Her vigil, and the novel, ends with the dawn. It’s both the first morning of Philip’s being dead, and a morning in Paris when they, new lovers, drink coffee in a café. She thinks of how she will word her call to her daughter, and of how she cannot think properly. In the novel’s fine final paragraphs, Nina has a dream (or is it a vision?) that completes her transformations through time, from youth to late middle age, from married to widowed, and from helplessness to a competence that brings her back to the light of day.

NancyKay Shapiro is the author of What Love Means to You People, a novel, and is at work on a novel that explores the adventures of a minor character from Jane Eyre. She lives in New York City. More from this author →