four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
43-Nov-Dec-2009
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0

A-A Happy MarriageHis first novel in 13 years, A Happy Marriage tells the essentially autobiographical story of Rafael Yglesias’s complex, 30-year relationship with his wife, Margaret, who died of cancer in 2004. In a recent interview, Yglesias explained that he wrote a novel instead of a memoir to "preserve the frankness of [his] private thoughts and feelings while telling the story."

The Story: In 1975, promising young writer Enrique Sabas meets the woman of his dreams, Margaret Cohen. Unfortunately, the 21-year-old high school dropout, shy and insecure despite the two novels he has already published, commits every mistake imaginable while trying to woo the self-assured Cornell grad four years his senior. Nearly 30 years later, Margaret is in the hospital. Despondent and wracked with pain after three years of aggressive cancer treatments, she begs her husband to let her die. While Enrique busies himself with final preparations, he relives the highs and lows of their relationship, quietly composing the last words he will ever say to his dearly loved wife.
Scribner. 371 pages. $26. ISBN: 9781439102305

New York Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Rarely has there been a closer study of a loved person, the particulars of her beauty, the freckles on her pale skin, her personality, her unwavering devotion to her family, her flaws—her apparently too-small teeth, dislike of making decisions, hesitations, occasional passivity. … Mr. Yglesias, or his novelist persona, may mourn the supposed failures of his career—despite the many novels and screenplays—but in the death of this beautiful woman, he has found the novel of his life." Dinitia Smith

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"I can’t think of many examinations of long-term marriages in modern novels, and that alone makes Rafael Yglesias’ surprising and deeply affecting new work stand out. What’s more, it’s clearly autobiographical, yet deals evenhandedly with deeply painful subjects, which makes it a very brave book indeed." Nancy Connors

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"He recounts the triumphs and failures of a well-matched relationship with raw, often brutal honesty. Any 21-year-old can rhapsodize over the curves of his beloved’s cheekbones; it’s the decades that follow—battered by infidelity, altered by age and circumstance, ravaged by disease—that reveal both the limits and transcendence of a true, lasting love." Leah Greenblatt

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"There are so many overlaps between the author and his protagonist that it’s tempting to read this as a memoir in the third person. But the novel as a form allows Yglesias the distance to view these characters with objectivity, to strive for the truth even when it’s not flattering or pretty." Malena Watrous

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"A deeply personal story about infatuation, love, betrayal and loss, Rafael Yglesias’ largely autobiographical novel is a sprawling yet intimate account of his 27-year marriage that will break readers’ hearts while at the same time renewing their faith in the value of the enduring institution of matrimony. … Although the ending is no surprise, the emotional suspense of the novel keeps the reader turning pages long after giving up hope that a miracle will save Margaret’s life and Enrique’s marriage." Meghan Ward

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s the story of his almost 30-year relationship with his wife, Margaret, told in back-and-forth chapters recounting its sweet, charming and quirky beginnings alongside its poignant and heartbreaking end. … Though the reader knows what happens at the end of this eloquent ‘novel,’ it propels the story along rather than weakening it, right up to the last-kiss moment before Margaret dies." Craig Wilson

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In prose that flexes with unflinching confidence, Yglesias parts the hospital curtain to show not just death’s indignities—Margaret’s ‘scouring pad’ of hair, or the stomach tube politely hidden inside a L’Occitane bag—but also its tender comedy, small reprieves and surreal turns of fortune. Not to mention its heartbreak. … Unfortunately, these insights are too often obscured by back story—on the couple’s boys, say, or Enrique’s bad taste in birthday gifts—that feels cramped and anemic." Scott Muskin

Critical Summary

Yglesias is brutally honest in this deeply personal account of his thorny, but ultimately loving, marriage. He tells the parallel stories of the beginning and the end of this relationship "in something of a tour de force of novelistic architecture" (New York Times), which strikes a fine balance between the heady excitement of budding romance and the agonizing loss of enduring love. Though the story line may seem predictable at first, Yglesias throws in enough twists, surprises, and emotional urgency to keep readers turning the pages, and his fully realized—if not always likeable—characters are wholly convincing. A "profound deliberation on the nature of love, marriage, and the process of dying" (New York Times), this visceral, poignant novel will break your heart.