What makes a happy marriage? Rafael Yglesias, prodigy novelist--he published his first novel at 16--and screenwriter, turns his considerable talent to answering that question in his new book, entitled appropriately enough, A Happy Marriage. It is no spoiler to say the answer turns out far too complex for a simple review like this one. Nor is the conclusion that along the paths happy marriages take unhappiness and grief are strewn. The book never explicitly says so, but happily married couples already knew it and the book confirms it.
It is impossible to know anything about Yglesias without realizing how heavily autobiographical is A Happy Marriage. All the major touchstones of his real life marriage to Margaret Joskow are mirrored in the fictional characters, Enrique Sabas and Margaret Cohen: their courtship, their ups and downs, even a few not too salacious scenes from their sex life. We can guess he’s probably taken liberties with details; we don’t which.
If you find it hard to imagine a book with a name like A Happy Marriage having enough conflict to hold a modern reader’s attention, I predict a pleasant surprise because it is riveting. At least it was for me, even though by the second chapter I knew the inevitable end. Yglesias first takes us to Enrique and Margaret’s original meeting, next, to knowledge of the cancer that eats away at her body and spirit, all 21 chapters alternating symmetrically between their lifetime together and the final few weeks they have left. In Yglesias’ expert hands, it pulls you breakneck through the novel as you plunge ahead insistently to see what will happen.
One other aspect needs mentioning, for although a novel, it should be read by couples facing cancer. Yglesias’ depiction of the agonizing sense of helplessness a person faces seeing a beloved life partner slowly die, the inability to communicate with friends addled by their embarrassed squeamishness at his plight, the jarring perception of how terminal illness cruelly and sweetly brings you closer, rings painfully true to this reviewer. The cosmopolitan, Jewish intellectual that is Enrique Sabas could not be more culturally distant from this Texas Baptist who also had a cherished spouse die of cancer. Yet, that his crystalline emotions were my own allowed me the modicum of comfort their universality makes possible.