(Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2010)
You could make a convincing argument that I’m less than qualified to offer my opinions on a book consumed with marriage. I’ve lived alone for nearly thirteen years, never had a husband, a fiancé, a proposal. I set my own schedule, pay my own bills, make decisions, small and large, without negotiation or compromise. Indeed, some friends assume I’m happily single, pleased to have personal space and freedom to come and go as I wish. It’s a conclusion I’ve left largely unchecked, because I find it easier than telling the truth: I suddenly very much want to be married but can’t explain why.
And therein lies my trouble: it would be nice to understand this desire rather than just accept it. I was never the girl who played make-believe bride with her dolls. When I got older, I watched friends march down the aisle and felt a vague sense of terror. At a Filipino friend’s wedding, he and his bride were yoked together by a piece of rope in the shape of a figure-eight, a symbol of their eternal bond. I looked at it and thought: noose. Love, commitment, children, intimacy, sex, companionship, health insurance, two incomes, someone to grow old with—marriage neither guarantees all of this, nor is it the only way to get it. So why do I want to join the club if I’m not convinced of its perks?
Even the title of Valerie Trueblood’s astonishing new collection of stories struck me: Marry or Burn. It made me think of the signs hung on the backs of wagons during the Gold Rush: California or Bust. An essential destination, a predetermined outcome—or ruin. Not just ruin: burn. White-hot destruction. Marriage as a kind of crucible where transformation can happen, a hard but fragile shelter from the flame. Likely also a reference to Corinthians in the Bible, an admonishment to avoid fornication by marrying: “It is better to marry than to burn.” Marriage can save us, but in doing so, it also restricts our unspeakable desires.
Befitting the collection’s title, these twelve stories are not quiet portraits of domesticity. Marriage here is a stage for upset and tumult: murder, sudden death, cheating, unplanned pregnancy, suicide. Trueblood catapults many of her stories into action with dramatic opening sentences. The first story, “Amends,” begins: “When she was twenty, Francie Madden shot and killed her husband Gary”; the final one, “Beloved, You Looked Into Space,” starts with: “Our father married a woman who took an ax to a bear.” These potentially gimmicky setups are searingly effective because Trueblood startles us in just the way that life startles us; we are quietly carrying on with our routines and then something crazy happens and we think: how can this possibly be my life? Now what? In Francie’s case, how can she come to grips with killing her husband? “Amends,” like most stories in the collection, moves forward and backward in time so that we see Francie spend twenty years in jail, get released, and try to figure out how to make a life for herself. Though Francie was abused by her husband, Trueblood is too subtle a writer to make this a simple story of victimization; Francie had a violent temper too, we learn, and went after Gary not in self-defense but to get even. The tragedy of their marriage is not Gary’s violence or Francie’s criminal act but that the wedding took place at all. Francie recalls their life together, collapsed into a moment’s thought: “They were going to get married in a few years. Nobody warned them not to. A suds of blood and then something else pumped out of his neck. And then what? Nothing, after that. For him nothing. For her, this. This life. If she closed her eyes she might see what was going to let her live it.”
Which is not to say that Trueblood is bleak on the subject of marriage. She’s as likely to surprise her readers with moments of unforeseen joy or hope as despair. In the charming story “Suitors,” thirty-four-year-old Meg decides she wants to marry and is matched with three men through her friend’s dating service. Her parents are dismayed with the choices, calling them Moody Farmer, Tall Street Person, and Borderline Busboy. Yet Meg manages to enjoy dating the latter two men and even marries the second one. Her parents fret about Meg’s method of dating: “Would neither one of these men have found her on his own? That was the question. What was marriage anyway, if it involved the yoking of two who would not have encountered each other naturally on the planet?” Meg’s happiness is short lived, however; her husband dies suddenly of complications from Marfan’s Syndrome. It’s the sucker punch that makes the story’s ending all the more surprising: we flash forward to see Meg happily married to the Moody Farmer, who had seemed like a lonely loser. It takes a writer of great daring even to attempt a happy ending these days, and one of great talent to make it seem as inevitable as it does here. The Moody Farmer had seemed a minor character, a footnote in Meg’s life, until the story’s final paragraphs. Often in these stories, the details or anecdotes feel somewhat incidental, with the structure or significance not apparent until the story’s end. In this way, Trueblood’s readers must piece together meaning much in the way her characters do, trying to make sense of their lives.
If marriage is the source of so much drama and angst, what, exactly, is the point? There’s no grand reveal here, no flash of insight to tell us why—despite divorce, infidelity, death—the trip down the aisle is still one worth making. As the mother in the story “Phantom Father” says, “I learned my lesson very early, though I can’t say what it was exactly. You’ll find that. You can’t say what you’ve learned, exactly, and whoever does—well, don’t trust it absolutely.” Yet her characters do learn something, even if it can’t quite be articulated, by hitching their lives together, stretching, straining, bumping up against one another, whether for a lifetime or a year. When her sister has died and her husband has lost his memory, another of Trueblood’s mother characters remarks: “Nobody will remember the same things I do, now.” Maybe that’s what we’re after: me, the characters in Trueblood’s remarkable collection, the millions of people who exchange vows each year. Someone who will remember the same things we do—for better or for worse.
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Marion Wyce‘s review of Marry or Burn originally appeared in TLR’s Winter 2011 issue, The Rogue Idea.