Sunday, June 21, 2009

What's the Matter with Marriage?

On the front cover of today's New York Times Book Review Katie Roiphe reviews a book titled A Vindication of Love by Cristina Nehrig and for the life of me I can't understand why it was there. Roiphe writes:

"In her most provocative and interesting chapters, Nehring argues for the value of suffering, for the importance of failure. Our idea of a contented married ending is too cozy and tame for her. We yearn for what she calls “strenuously exhibitionistic happiness” — think of family photos on Facebook — but instead we should focus on the fullness and intensity of emotion."

Um, I don't know, I read that and I didn't really pick up on an argument as much as a description of a defense of the dramatic breakup and a pretty reductive one at that. My happy family pictures on Facebook are but one side of my life. When the moment I'm living through is intense, dramatic, and emotional "Wait! Get the camera!" is the last thing I'm likely to say. If you really think the happiness of family life is tame, then I'm guessing you've been living separate from a family unit for a long time.

For comparison's sake, take Douglas Brown's moving essay about raising an autistic son in today's Modern Love column. Putting aside the demanding love Brown's son requires (which is a lot to put aside), the kind of love Brown and his wife must share while offering their son and daughter a home in which to grow must be just as heroic as that of any of the star-crossed lovers Roiphe tells us Nehring celebrates. I mean, come on. Who doesn't know that failure and suffering are important parts of personal development. They build character! Then you take that character and build a life -- with or without children -- but a rich, complicated life hopefully full of love with friends and lovers and without the need for early death and emotional destruction to make that love seem real. Apparently, though, Nehring doesn't have much to say about those well-built lives. Roiphe writes:

"If there is anything unsatisfying about this fierce and lively book, it is a slight evasiveness at its core. Nehring does not quite take on the vast continent of quietly married people who must be her target."

So, Nehring attacks those in long relationships for not falling on the swords of passion but doesn't say them why any of us should forfeit the love we share for dramatic flourishes that for her make life "real"? And where's her research anyway? Just from literature? I love literature, but I'm not looking to it for data points. Nehring's approach as described by Roiphe seems a little like Sandra Tsing Loh thinking her four friends in sexless marriages combined with her own decision to find sex and love outside of her own marriage are representative of How Marriage Is for everyone.

What's striking about both the Nehring review and the Loh essay is that Nehring and Loh are probably women who treasure their individuality and demand recognition for their independent thought. (If they didn't they wouldn't write.) So why is it that they think everyone they're talking to is exactly the same? And tell me again why that book was reviewed on the front page of the Book Review because, I don't know, I'm just not feeling the love.


Nicole said...

Oh, you made my day with that sentence: "I love literature, but I'm not looking to it for data points." Just catching up on your blog!

Robin Aronson said...

It's all about the data points, baby!