With This Ring 

Sometimes marriage means happily ever after -- and sometimes it means secrets and lies.

Oh, the champagne fountain. The four-tiered cake cloaked in sheets of edible gold, embossed with his and her initials. Oh, the shrimp cocktail, the string quartet, the diamond-studded $300,000 dress.

Fast-forward a year, five years, fifteen. Husband comes home after work, crosses a living room cluttered with dinner dishes from the night before, and finds his wife mocking him with the cleaning lady in the kitchen.

"My husband wants me to go away on a trip with him," she tells the cleaning lady, knowing he can hear. "But why would I want to go with him? It won't be any fun!"

He begs, telling her the trip will be short but nice.

"I don't want to," she says.

Two weeks later, again coming home, he spies through a window the whole family doing imitations of his walk, his voice, his face. His wife sends their teenage son and daughter into gales of laughter, and their houseguest too. Husband walks in. Everyone titters. Wife sneers.

So this is married life? After all the hopes and dreams, the hugs and guest-lists, the white lace and promises, it comes to this?

It does in Nobuo Kojima's novel Embracing Family (Dalkey Archive, $21.95), awarded Japan's prestigious Tanizaki Literary Prize when it was originally published in 1966 and now available for the first time in English. Someone clever should have come up with a better English title; juiceless as a cockroach's wing, this one cannot convey the gut-punch angst and animal brutality of Kojima's couple in crisis. Slashing at each other with you're-ugly banter and tawdry affairs, middle-aged intellectual Shunsuke and desperate housewife Tokiko were once in love. Now they can hardly bear to walk down the street together. Neither is a hero. He never listens; she's shallow and puts on airs, calling herself more feminine than women who are flatter-chested and have a lighter menstrual flow. Tokiko's casual racism reflects a postwar-Japan mindset, but makes her appear all the grosser: American lovers are inferior, she sniffs; and at a hospital, "I'm embarrassed to think how I might have looked ... like some Indian woman, with my clothes slipping off."

Tragedy strikes, and it's not too much of a spoiler to say that this turns husband and wife tender again. But even in this blockish translation (by Yukiko Tanaka -- who knows what Haruki Murakami's translator Jay Rubin or Banana Yoshimoto's translator Michael Emmerich might have made of this?), the tenderness is less Love Story than the scraping of salty knives over old wounds. Hope and pray that your wedding vows will never come to this: Alone again, Shunsuke -- eyeing the photograph of an available woman -- "became angry and felt like grabbing her by the neck and dragging her into his house." Surly as ever, his teenage son shouts: "I want you to bring a housewife in here soon."

Luckily, that's fiction, and Vikram Seth's Two Lives (Harper Collins, $27.95) -- about the author's apparently happy aunt and uncle -- isn't. But in retracing those lives through interviews and letters, mainly after everyone involved was dead, the celebrated bachelor novelist and Stanford alum (his 1986 work The Golden Gate comprises 690 rhyming tentrameter sonnets) discovered that every marriage is a prism of public truths and private truths. Secrets and lies kept by husband and wife from the world hide further secrets each keep from each other. Indian-born Shanti studied dentistry in Berlin, boarding with a Jewish family, as Hitler gained power. After leaving for England and serving in the British army, Shanti married Henny, the newly emigrated daughter of his Berlin landlady. Henny's whole family had been killed; his lived on the far side of the world. Tall pale woman, small coffee-skinned man: These two outsiders created a serene London aerie, "a zone where the pain of the past and its tentacles into the present were not allowed to enter." Their private writings exposed almost too much. Shanti's passion chafed against Henny's settling for what she secretly called "less than 100 percent happiness" with him. Wracked with grief for lost kin, lost friends, and a homeland transformed into hell, she hid the breadth of her sorrow from Shanti.

"I want them complexly remembered," Seth vows. His refusal to draw conclusions about them sets their twined tales deep inside a swirly fog whose trailing ends curl into question marks. Life's like that. When a marriage dies, when married people die, a thousand lights flick off forever and whole swatches of history vanish. After surfing along gently on all those swirls and uncertainties, all those lamentations about Nazi atrocities for nearly four hundred pages, Seth -- who in an earlier scene described how the sound of German sickened him before he learned to love it again, via Schubert -- will startle some readers by jolting suddenly into a screed against the Jewish state: "By far the bitterest cause of resentment in the Muslim world are the actions of Israel," he rails, "supported mainly by the United States." What is this doing here?

Back in the realm of love and guest-lists, Hana Schank's hilarious wedding memoir A More Perfect Union (Atria, $22) dissects traditions -- from calligraphed invitations to registering for lemon-zesters at Macy's -- that mean nothing to nearly anyone except those who are suddenly six months or less away from walking down the aisle. At that point you've entered "wedding land ... a totalitarian state where the bride and groom issue edicts and the citizen-guests must obey."

Easing step by satin-slippered step toward her own nuptials -- and she adores her grad-student fiancé, anticipating a glorious day -- Schank questions the authority of bridal magazines, gown-shop clerks, caterers, and stationers. Why does everyone keep saying that brides should resemble princesses? "Where are the wedding gowns that make you look like an astronaut, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist ... ? No one asked me if on my wedding day I wanted to look like the president." She chides an industry that battens itself on pitiful narcissism by persuading brides-to-be that "this is our shot" -- two hours of ersatz fame, fading forever as the last guest leaves and a lifetime of obscurity-for-two begins. Dreaming of hollyhocks, horrified to watch herself turn shrewish over shades of ivory and pink, Schank feels guilty about asking her divorced parents, who haven't seen each other for years, to stand side by side and smile. Anyone who has ever gotten married will shiver with gratitude for what Schank dares to admit, and for the sharp silver knives she slips under wedding land's tight synthetic surface:

"Register at Tiffany all you want," she warns, and gazing at your own cupboards you know she's right, "but if your guests shop at T.J. Maxx, guess what you're getting."

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