Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Review: A Happy Marriage

One normally indicates that a novel is good by saying "I couldn't put it down." A Happy Marriage, by Rafael Ygelesias, accomplishes something more difficult and more lasting. I had to put it down after every three or four chapters. The content was too intense; I needed to process what I'd read before moving on.

A Happy Marraige is an autobiographical novel which reflects on the relationship between Ygelesias and his deceased wife Margaret. The novel unfolds by bouncing between the end of Margaret's struggle with cancer and of important points in their marriage, with a special focus on the first few days of their relationship with each other. I haven't read any of Ygelesias's prior novels (I have read the work of Matthew Ygelsias, his son). I wasn't sure what to expect from an autobiographical novel. It was unexpectedly raw, cutting, and unforgettable.

Margaret dies a modern death: full of tubes and medicine and sustained by a nutritious gruel which is pumped into her body. There are doctors and high-risk, experimental treatments but, cancer inexorably wins. The scary truth is that this is the type of death that likely awaits many of us. Such treatments both offer hope of a cure while also slowly grinding away at any aspect of life that is natural or enjoyable. The struggles between Margaret, Enrique (the persona of Ygelsias), and her doctors is quit compelling and reveals a great deal about their nature. Consider this interaction between her and her main oncologist in the hospital:
Margaret had fixed herself up for this audition. She had worked meticulously on her wig to make its replica of her short black hairdo seem as natural as possible, and she had pot on a pretty green floral skirt. She wore a white silk T-shirt smooth to her torso except for the bumps of the three access ports to the catheter installed above her right breast for TPN feedings and other intravenous medications. Her white teeth, bonded over twenty years ago into pretty and seamless proportions, shined a bold and cheerful smile at the Iraqi's stern countenance. "Because I was just being used as a guinea pig," she answered.

"So?" he scolded. "You have metastatic cancer. You're incurable. Your only chance to survive is to be a guinea pig."

"I don't mind being a guinea pig," she shot right back at him, aloft on an examination table, rocking her slim, pretty legs, like a girl on a swing, teasing the boys. "I mind being a guinea pig in a failed experiment."

"What do you mean--a failed experiment?" he said, pronouncing the phrase as if it were contemptible and possibly not English. "How could you know--?"

The story of the beginning of their relationship is absolutely convincing. Which is good, since it is a true story. Enrique's excited awkwardness coupled with his immediate recognition of his love for Margaret captures the tense and hopeful feelings at the start of any relationship. The reader knows how both stories will end: the get married, spend 30 years together, and then Margaret dies of cancer. This knowledge makes the many little suspenses achieved by the story more remarkable.

Through these two ends of a relationships, Ygelsias explores what it truly means to know a person, and to what extent you ever truly can. Ygelsias's depiction of his own happy marriage is heartbreaking, inspiring, disappointing, and real. It is has a powerful emotional punch and is filled with passages that must be digested slowly. I highly recommend this novel.

No comments:

Post a Comment