I listened to I Married You for Happiness by Lily Tuck all at once, in a big gulp, and went back later to listen to some of it again, more carefully. It’s a brand-new widow’s reverie, a retrospective of a marriage. Nina – an artist, a painter who speaks French fluently, a wife and mother – is mourning Philip, a mathematics professor at MIT (Cambridge, Mass.) who was her husband for forty-two years and now (suddenly) is not.
The “I” of the title is Nina, whose husband of many years, Philip, has just died entirely unexpectedly in his sleep. As the novel opens, Nina is lying beside his body, after the doctor (a neighbor) has come and gone. Nina thinks about Philip, and about their adult daughter whom she will have to call soon. But mostly her thoughts drift over her years of marriage, one moment about the recent past (what Philip said when he went up to lie down before dinner) – the next, she’s thinking of their first meeting in France. (Philip thought Nina, an American art student, was French.) Mourning alone, before telling their daughter, Nina lets thoughts drift – remembering – through the night, before the shared grieving will have to begin.
Audiobook narrator Barbara Caruso reads wonderfully, easily moving from past to present. The whole novel takes place in Nina’s thoughts, but she remembers snatches of conversation from the past in the voices from the past – returning again and again to Philip’s voice, the things that Philip said – Caruso skilfully differentiates the voices. While some thoughts do recur, and many are fragmented and jump around, Nina has an artist’s memory, so a full scene from the past will rise up until another takes its place. She drifts in and out of the present, sometimes dreaming. She was a painter married to a mathematician, and she both remembers and imagines scenes from Philip’s teaching, his life before she knew him, his conversations with their daughter, who is going to have to be told soon.
This is an emotion-filled novel, but elegiac, imbued throughout with a sense of finality. The entire novel takes place in Nina’s recollection – nothing can be changed, nothing can be done. Nina allows herself this break in time, suspended between past and future, to think and to remember.
If you like memoirs about marriage such as Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking and John Baylor’s Elegy for Iris, or just short literary novels about marriage without much in the way of a plot, you might enjoy I Married You for Happiness.
I Married You for Happiness
Caruso, Barbara (narr.)
5.5 hrs. on 5 CDs
Disclosure: I borrowed this audiobook from the public library. I can’t remember if I saw a review somewhere, or if I just liked the title. (My memory is nowhere near as good as Nina’s in this novel.) Author Lily Tuck won the 2004 National Book Award for The News from Paraguay, but I Married You for Happiness is the first book by her that I’ve read.