19 May, 2010

The Duchess Considers . . .


It's an endlessly fascinating subject, and under the cavernous umbrella of that one word exist innumerable permutations of the concept. It is at once both a universal and individual idea. From birth we are, most often, deeply and irreparably influenced by the marriages of those intimately close to us (our parents, our grandparents, our aunts and uncles); as we age, we undertake the mantle our own selves, and share in that status, that mindset, that legal relationship, that emotional free-for-all, with our friends, with our families, and most significantly with our spouses.

In the first few months after her wedding, many people inquired of the Duchess: "How is married life treating you?" Married Life. A life perhaps indescribably different (more profound or less profound? richer or poorer? better or worse?) than Single Life: Married Life had a life of its own; it existed outside of him and her; it was a force to be reckoned with; and it defined them, both to each other and to the outside world, with labels, responsibilities and expectations that neither she nor he (she now believes) understood in scope or magnitude. Married Life changes us in ways we cannot predict, in ways we do not want, in ways we later cannot reverse.

"Husband and Wife", the new novel by contemporary author Leah Stewart, explores the changes undertaken by two people of those same names (a Husband, Nathan, and a Wife, Sarah), or imposed upon them by Married Life. In the book both Husband and Wife are authors (he a novelist, she a poet) in spirit and education, but Wife has dutifully -- after the birth of Son and Daughter -- taken a respectably dull position as the manager of a neurobiology lab at Duke University. It has benefits, sure (health care coverage, steady income), and allows Nathan the freedom to pursue his literary career. As Sarah transforms herself into a seemingly responsible adult, she and Nathan, once bound together by youthful passion and artistic verve, find themselves drifting apart, increasingly entwined only by their shared love of Daughter and Son, their dwindling bank account, their memories.

Predictably Nathan has an affair. He loves Sarah, he assures her; it meant nothing, it was only one time, and it was completely, forever in the past. Predictably Sarah finds that this revelation destroys her carefully constructed world. Predictably we readers follow Sarah on her journey from denial, to indignation, to confusion, to understanding, and finally to forgiveness.

Key to her journey is Sarah's secretly held and long dormant passion for another man, Rajiv, with whom she shared romance before her marriage to Nathan. Through Rajiv primarily, Sarah experiences a reawakening of her former self, her pre-marriage self, and this restoration is essential to the restoration of the marriage.

It's nothing new. In fact, the story is ages old. But it raises those forever questions that we can never answer. Why does marriage change us from our pre-marriage selves? Should it? Do we want it to? What is the nature of infidelity? Does it depend on the commission of a physical act? Are mind-consuming fantasies sufficient to qualify as adultery? If not, why not? Can marriage last a lifetime? And how do we balance the pursuit of our own dreams with the potential hurt, and disappointment, such pursuit could render? What is love? Does it coincide with marriage? And to what extent must we, should we, share with our spouses the secrets and peccadilloes inside us all, knowing as we do that their revelations will wreak havoc?

These things the Duchess considers. A proud hurrah to Ms. Stewart for creating a suitable vehicle for exploration.

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