Unhappily Ever After 

We love reading about love, especially when it hurts.

Pat Montandon adored her husband: "Al was the kindest man I'd ever met. ... He loved me deeply." For her fiftieth birthday, as described in Montandon's memoir Oh the Hell of It All (HarperCollins, $25.95), he threw her a dinner party at Trader Vic's whose guests included Danielle Steel and Alex Haley. "You've made my life a flower garden," she told Al as she raised her glass in a toast that night. Eight days later, he left her for her best friend.

Lynn Darling adored her husband too. She married Lee Lescaze knowing for sure — as she confides in her memoir Necessary Sins (Dial, $24) — "that I was happy." Yet "a vein of shame still ran beneath my happiness." The pair had met when she was a features writer for the Washington Post and he was a famous foreign correspondent — married, with children. On one of their first dates, Darling admired "the wide smooth band of his wedding ring." Carrying a racquet, he would tell his wife he had a tennis game, then rush off to Darling's apartment. Finally his wife found out. Their co-workers were outraged, but one friend fed Darling a chicken dinner: "The fact that I was still worth nourishing made me feel a little less wretched." Darling was the sort of person who spouted dialogue such as "I aim for a carefully calibrated equipoise between overweening arrogance and abject self-hatred." Lee married her. Then he got cancer and died.

Jennifer Corbin met her husband while waiting tables at an oyster bar called Barnacles. The handsome dentist swept her off her feet. Eight years later, he shot her in the head and made it look like suicide. As revealed in John Glatt's true-crime page-turner The Doctor's Wife (St. Martin's, $6.99), she'd been having an online affair with a woman named Anita whom she had thought was a man named Chris whom she had met while playing EverQuest. "I want to moan your name," she had written Chris/Anita in an e-mail: ironic, because she would have moaned the wrong name. "Scream as you pull my hair and slap my ass." The Corbins' seven-year-old son discovered Jennifer's bloody corpse.

A Prussian adolescent named Sophia met her fiancé after their marriage was arranged by relatives. Peter was a "spotty, malformed youth" who "would play with dolls till two or three in the morning." One day he "court-martialed and hanged a rat" for having eaten one of his toy soldiers. In the nuptial bed, "he was completely impotent." But hey, explains Her Royal Highness Princess Michael of Kent in Crowned in a Far Country (Touchstone, $14): Sophia grew up to be Catherine the Great.

Reading about relationships is the literary equivalent of watching cars crash. Or is that just because we only write and read about the whacked-out ones? When Tolstoy began Anna Karenina with the classic line, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," he pretty much meant that happy families are a yawn. We don't want to read nonfiction about them, or fiction either.

Okay, sometimes we try. What reviewers hailed as "warmth" and "the profound importance of everyday revelations" made massive best-sellers of Alexander McCall Smith's first several #1 Ladies' Detective Agency novels — in which plump, plucky Precious Ramotswe solved minor crimes while waiting for her mechanic fiancé, forever and always referred to as "Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni," to set a date. When the series' eighth installment, The Good Husband of Zebra Drive (Pantheon, $21.95), hits the shelves in mid-April, how many readers will finally be able to admit to themselves that this sweetness is killing them? An excerpt: "Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni frowned. 'Please don't laugh at me, Mma Ramotswe.' She leaned forward and rested her hand on his forearm. 'I would never laugh at you, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. I would never do that.'"

In Michelle Richmond's new novel The Year of Fog (Delacorte, $20), Abby Mason feels "a surge of joy" while watching six-year-old Emma collect sand dollars on Ocean Beach and realizing that "in three months, I would marry her father." Abby looks away. Within sixty seconds Emma has vanished. Her disappearance drives a wedge between the affianced pair, who respond to their loss with misery, mistrust, sexual recoil, and — because every new book must have its obligatory ralph moment — upchucking. Missing-kid sagas are nothing new. But despite a bit too much ballast-as-backstory, Richmond freshens the chestnut with her empathy for Abby and with a twist.

A twist flips Benjamin Lebert's slip-of-a-sophomore-effort The Bird Is a Raven (Vintage, $12), too. Lebert's debut novel, Crazy, wowed Germany in 2003: He wrote it when he was sixteen. Fans are expecting a lot from this next one, set aboard a Berlin-bound train as young Henry tells his seatmate Paul about a triangle involving himself, his anorexic cousin Christine whom he worships — "love is pain" — and obese virginal Jens, who loves her too, but goes ballistic when he catches the cousins bonking in his bed. While pounding on Christine's door during an epic come-away-with-me plea, Henry "noticed ... that I'd shat my pants." Undaunted, "I caressed the door, and then leaned my back against it and slowly slid down. ... The shit in my pants was squished up against my ass. My ass was burning." But — and readers will so totally see this coming — Paul turns out to hold the real love secret. Snap!

Will you improve your chances or sink them by listening to authors? In Dating Up: Dump the Schlump and Find a Quality Man (Warner, $13.99), journalist J. Courtney Sullivan promises to help you "learn how to locate and keep a quality wealthy man." Money isn't everything, she muses, but still: Give the old heave-ho to "he whose head on the social totem pole is way the heck lower than yours," even if he's a low-income sweetie who does all the dishes. Be feminist! Be independent! But make him buy your meals. Be yourself! But when you're nervous, "pretend you're someone else. When I'm feeling a little bit fat, for instance," Sullivan admits, "I always pretend I'm Cindy Crawford." She offers hundreds of tips on shopping, baking, makeup, and much more: "Blow jobs ... men dig it," she advises, though not for first dates. But you can chat about Les Misérables, because it's on that secret "list of books that the educated class likes to refer to in casual conversation."

So, dude, how about that Jean Valjean, eh? Can you believe he takes shelter in a convent, fights in the street, then flees via the sewers? Quel homme, non?

Then again, there's always EverQuest.


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