Slim, Scattered 'Happiness' Probe Love and Grief

'I Married You for Happiness' by Lily Tuck (Atlantic Monthly Press)

Alex G. Libby

Staff writer Anjali R. Itzkowitz can be reached at aitzkow@college.harvard.edu.

Despite its innocuous title, "I Married You for Happiness," Lily Tuck’s latest novel is not a cheerful tale. It follows the newly widowed Nina as she recollects episodes from her marriage to the mathematician Philip. For a chronicle of a 43-year marriage, this is a slim volume, and the book’s unconventional approach to time is its most intriguing and problematic feature. Presented haphazardly and in non-chronological order, Nina’s memories, from her first meeting with Philip at a Paris café to their life together in Somerville, Mass., reveal many secrets but provide no clarity.

The recollections take place over the course of Nina’s sleepless night following her husband’s sudden death from heart failure. They are punctuated by brief returns to the present, during which Nina drinks more and more wine. This steady, solitary drinking imbues even the happy memories with melancholy. A cycling tour of northern France culminates with Philip’s proposal; Philip rescues their daughter Louise’s bucket from the sea. Because Tuck deliberately avoids a chronological approach, incidents both trivial and momentous race past each other in Nina’s churning consciousness. The plot unfolds almost entirely in the past, but in a past without sequence. Nina "has no desire to think about the future. For her, the future does not exist; it is an absurd concept. She prefers to think about the past."

The more traumatic an event, the more frequently Nina recalls it. But each time the memory gets more explicit. Nina is a painter, and it is almost as if she is revisiting multiple canvasses again and again to fill out the details as she remembers them. Her ostensibly sheltered life as the stay-at-home wife of a successful Harvard professor has had more than its fair share of trauma. She has experienced rape, an affair, and an abortion. By dealing with these tragedies repeatedly––though not sequentially––Tuck creates a crushing inevitability that only adds to the gloom. Again and again, it becomes clear that Nina is, once more, back in the French forest where she was raped, or back on Belle-Île where she had her affair.

The structure of Tuck’s unconventional narrative very effectively approximates the process of memory. Nina wants to recall the early days of her relationship with Philip, full of hope and lovemaking: "She replays the scene once again in her mind. And again. She makes a few changes." But the more painful memories only come to light in raw bursts, as in the case of her abortion: "She hears the clinking of instruments in a metal basin. The man says something to her as, with his hands, he forcibly spreads her legs wider apart." Although we are in Nina’s thoughts for the entirety of the novel, the narrative is in the third person. This creates a gulf between Nina and the reader that is never penetrated despite the book’s higly personal subject matter. Despite being acquainted with the most intimate details of her life, both dramatic and mundane, we never really get insights into Nina’s character. Perhaps this is because Nina herself is so detached from the world. She is wracked not by grief but by emptiness.

Closely connected to the novel’s scattered chronology is its heavy emphasis on the concept of chance. Philip is a mathematician and an expert in probability. He and Nina have opposite relationships with the random. When Nina tries to describe Philip’s field she explains it as "something to do with randomness. Derandomization." It doesn’t take an expert in combinatorics to tell you that derandomization is the process of removing randomness. Interspersed throughout Nina’s memories are excerpts from Philip’s lectures, in which he explains away random occurrences with mathematical principles like the Poisson distribution. But Nina rejects his attempts to rationalize the world, to strip it of its idiosyncrasies.

Philip uses a phonetic code to remember the first 100 digits of pi. He explains that "it is useful as it turns meaningless numbers into meaningful words. Every digit is associated with a consonant sound and that is how I can remember the first hundred digits of pi." Nina’s approach is rather different. "The first 8 digits of pi would go like this: she is pregnant at 31; now, she is 41; 59 are the last two digits of Patsy’s telephone number;" and so forth. Nina embraces the random, the idiosyncratic, the apparently insignificant. In her world, ripped apart by the loss of her husband, it is all she has left.

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