Every year, millions of couples across the United States cement their relationship with a wedding—that expensive, fantastical thing—and the vow that their love will last a lifetime. If you’ve ever wanted to take a Marriage 101 class, consider Lisa Grunwald and Stephen Adler’s massive The Marriage Book as a starting point. Detailing the best and worst of matrimony with perspectives from novelists, sex experts, and former U.S. presidents, as well as excerpts from ancient and modern texts, The Marriage Book is an anthology filled with insight.
Despite the numerous happy endings found in literature and movies, marriages and weddings are never the end of a story. In the comics world, a wedding story line involving Batman and Catwoman interrogates what emotional vulnerability and sacrifice look like for superheroes in love. George Eliot, in Middlemarch, writes that a marriage is just the start of “a home epic,” in which an immense, uncertain future lies ahead for two people. And in Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, readers observe the heartbreaking dissolution of two very distinct marriages.
Each week in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas, and ask you for recommendations of what our list left out.
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What We’re Reading
The mystery of marriage
“Crammed with everything from a Mesopotamian legal contract to New Yorker cartoons to modernist prose, the book’s 500-odd pages (lots of them illustrated) describe the many, often discordant, faces of marriage.”
Batman, Catwoman, and the marriage plot in comics
“In drafting a wedding plot over the last year, the writer Tom King has upended tradition by trying to pursue something novel for two of comics’ most iconic characters: personal growth.”
📚 AMAZING SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL NO. 21, story by David Michelinie and Jim Shooter
📚 SUPERMAN NO. 1, story by Jerry Siegel
The epistolary dissolution of a relationship
“[Tayari Jones’s] writing illuminates the bits and pieces of a marriage: those almost imperceptible moments that make it, break it, and forcefully tear it apart.”
📚THE MARRIAGE PLOT, by Jeffrey Eugenides
Why marriage is the start of an “epic,” according to George Eliot
“When Eliot says marriage ‘has been the bourne of so many narratives,’ she’s alluding to the fact that many stories and novels of her time ended with a wedding scene. Here, though, she inverts the conventional wisdom, reminding us that marriage is never the end of anything.”
📚 MY LIFE IN MIDDLEMARCH, by Rebecca Mead
📚 U AND I, by Nicholson Baker
📚 ONE PERFECT DAY: THE SELLING OF THE AMERICAN WEDDING, by Rebecca Mead
When a marriage plot doesn’t mean a happy ending
“From deep within the interiors of a fictional marriage, [Jenny] Offill has crafted an account of matrimony and motherhood that breaks free of the all-too-limiting traditional stories of wives and mothers.”
📚LAST THINGS, by Jenny Offill
📚THE WIFE, by Meg Wolitzer
📚DOUBLETAKE, by Sylvia Plath
📚THE SILENT WIFE, by A. S. A. Harrison
The Reference Desk
(New York Public Library)
This week’s question comes from William Madigan, who asks, “How do I take myself out of my stories?”
Nothing is inherently wrong with being in your own story. If anything, some of the most comedic or insightful moments can come when an author decides to directly address the reader. For the novelist Joshua Cohen (Witz, Book of Numbers), one of his favorite passages in literature is from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Double, when Dostoyevsky unexpectedly uses the authorial “I” and anxiously laments his skills as a writer. What Cohen found was that this technique didn’t detract from the story at all.
I spent my 20s unhealthily fascinated by the fact that fiction writers had been appearing as writers in their own fictions forever … It made me mistrust the unacknowledged narrators of third-person omniscience, and confirmed my debt to Dostoyevsky, for introducing me to this technique.
I was deep into my 30s, however, before realizing that Dostoyevsky’s neuroses weren’t exclusively literary—because if the writer’s anxious about how to write, the hero’s anxious about how to speak, and the reader must be too.
(You can read the rest of Cohen’s perspective here.)
This week’s newsletter is written by J. Clara Chan. The book she’s reading right now is Conversations With Friends, by Sally Rooney.
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