One-Minute Book Reviews

August 24, 2009

How Do You Know When to Leave a Marriage? — ‘The Honeymoon’s Over: True Stories of Love, Marriage, and Divorce’ by Well-Known Writers

Filed under: Essays and Reviews — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:39 pm
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This post first appeared in 2007.

The Honeymoon’s Over: True Stories of Love, Marriage, and Divorce. Edited by Andrea Chapin and Sally Wofford-Girand. Warner, 350 pp., $24.99.

By Janice Harayda

Some publishers say that “anthologies are the new memoirs,” but The Honeymoon’s Over makes you wonder if the boom is running on empty.

This is third essay collection I’ve reviewed this year that includes work by Joyce Maynard, the prolific journalist, novelist and contributor to NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Maynard is a good essayist whose entries have been among the best in all three books, but she’s been cannibalizing her life for parts for so long that some of her stories are wearing thin. Another writer might have added more freshness to this lightweight book of essays by 24 women on turning points in their marriages.

Nothing in The Honeymoon’s Over has the sophistication of Jane Smiley’s reflections on her first marriage in the recent Mr. Wrong, or of the best work of essayists like Daphne Merkin or Phillip Lopate. And the worst entries are bad enough to put off the poeple who might appreciate this book the most – those who are trying to decide whether to leave a marriage. Terry McMillan’s writing goes further south in a bitter, profane and disorganized screed against her ex-husband. Daniela Kuper makes cloying use of second-person narration in an account of her efforts to get her son back from a guru. And Zelda Lockhart devotes 20 pages to her past without making you understand why she married a lesbian partner with whom she fought regularly and to whom she had “never been physically attracted.”

The best entries in The Honeymoon’s Over describe experiences strong enough to carry them despite any flaws in the writing. Perhaps the most memorable is Elissa Minor Rust’s essay on why she has stayed with her husband since leaving the Mormon faith they once shared, an unusually candid report on Latter Day Saints teachings on sex roles. Did you know that married Mormon women must wear “temple-issued undergarments”? This is the kind of information you rarely get from news shows on Mormonism, which tend to focus instead on the LDS tolerance for polygamy. Rust avoids writing about politics, but her essay indirectly suggests some of the problems Mitt Romney may face in his bid for the presidency. How long will it be before the tabloids – or Sixty Minutes – start asking where his wife gets her underwear?

Best line: Rust describes the Mormon rules that she and her boyfriend, now her husband, had to follow when he moved to New York to begin the two years of missionary work required of young Mormon men: “We weren’t allowed to speak, except on Christmas and Mother’s Day (and even that was stretching the rules; he was allowed to call his family on those two holidays, but he also called me). For two years, our only communication was through letters – and he was only allowed to write one a week. For a person like me who has always fought against rules and power structure, this was torture. I would have had more access to the man I loved were he in prison.”

Worst line (tie): No. 1: Terry McMillan’s rambling and vengeful list of “100 Questions” for her ex-husband. McMillan writes on page 97, “I’ve forgiven you,” and on page 98, “I haven’t exactly forgiven you.” Which is it? No. 2: Andrea Chapin and Sally Wofford-Girand write of the contributors to this book: “Women in their second marriages seemed to choose better mates and by then were better equipped themselves to make a marriage work.” Then why do second marriages have a higher divorce rate than first marriages?

Caveat lector: Some Web sites say, incorrectly, that this book includes an essay by Jane Smiley (making you wonder if she was scheduled to appear in it but bailed out in favor of the more flattering lighting of Mr. Wrong).

Consider reading instead: Mr. Wrong: Real-Life Stories of the Men We Used to Love (Ballantine, $24.95), edited by Harriet Brown.

Editor: Amy Einhorn

Published: February 2007

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 11, 2007

Wendy Swallow’s Memoirs of Divorce and Remarriage

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:10 am
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A writer and mother of two sons conquers some of her fears of life in the single lane

Breaking Apart: A Memoir of Divorce. By Wendy Swallow. Hyperion/Theia, 293 pp., $29.95.

The Triumph of Love Over Experience: A Memoir of Remarriage. By Wendy Swallow Hyperion/Theia, 304 pp. $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

You could easily conclude from Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling memoir of life after divorce, Eat, Pray, Love, that the best way to recuperate from a failed marriage is to run off Bali and have so much sex with your island lover that you get a bladder infection. Perhaps for Gilbert it was.

But who speaks for the newly single women who struggle to come up with $5.99 for a Christmas tree for their children? One answer is: Wendy Swallow, a former reporter for the Washington Post, who has written perhaps the best memoir of the decade about the collapse of a marriage.

Breaking Apart is a beautifully written account of social, emotional and professional effects of divorce on a mother of two boys, then ages 3 and 5, who was so frightened of going public with her separation that “it took me months to build up the courage to tell my parents.” A typically poignant moment occurs when Swallow picks her younger son up after his first overnight stay with his father and he is so amazed to see her that he cries, “You came back!” Swallow also writes with scathing candor about dating after divorce, including her experiences with older men – in their late 50s or early 60s – who had raised families and now wanted to have fun:

“With many of these men I felt as if I could have been just about anybody, as long as I was attractive and witty, because it was never about me. I often felt like a prop in a play – their play. I was perfect for them, they said, without ever asking if they were perfect for me.”

The sequel to Breaking Apart is a disappointment. Swallow’s second marriage involved unexpected problems – for her and for her new stepfamily – and her premature memoir of it has much less clarity and authority than her first book. Remarriage, she says, “destabilized” her sense of herself. It also destabilized her writing. Instead of offering the consistently original thought of Breaking Apart, she pads The Triumph of Love Over Experience with research and quotes from the sort of experts who appear regularly in pop psychological books and articles. Some of what she says is interesting:

“In first marriages, sociologists have found, happiness flows the parents to the kids. If the parents are happy, the children tend to be happy. But in remarriage, it’s the other way around: Happiness flows from the kids to parents … Unhappy children are, in fact, the biggest risk factor in whether a stepfamily makes it or not.”

But this kind of material is available elesewhere. And often The Triumph of Love Over Experience simply regurgitates therapeutic clichés, such as that “the key to sanity is letting go of those things you can’t control and focusing on those you can.” That may be true. But if you search for “control what you can control,” Google returns more than a half-billion pages. So while Breaking Apart transcends the subject of divorce, The Triumph of Love Over Experience has a much narrower appeal. At the end of the book, Swallow still seems to be wrestling with so many problems that she leaves you wondering if that word “triumph” in the title wasn’t intended, in part, ironically.

Best line: The first line of Breaking Apart: “As a fantasy, divorce has a lot to recommend it.”

Worst Line: In The Triumph of Love Over Experience, Swallow buys so heavily into the jargon of pop psychology that instead of admitting that things are a pretty much of a mess, she keeps using cloying euphemisms like: It was “challenging,” “it was a challenge,” and “that would be a challenge.”

Editor: Leigh Haber

Published: April 2001 (Breaking Apart), June 2004 (The Triumph of Love Over Experience).


Furthermore: The new The Honeymoon’s Over: True Stories of Love, Marriage, and Divorce (Warner, $24.99), edited by Andrea Chapin and Sally Wofford-Girand, deals with some of the same topics as Swallow’s books. This collection of original essays about make-or-break moments in marriages contains work by female authors who include Terry McMillan, Joyce Maynard and Martha McPhee.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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