A Happy Marriage by Rafael Yglesias

A Happy Marriage: A Novel BY Rafael Yglesias. Scribner. Hardcover, 384 pages. $26.
The cover of A Happy Marriage: A Novel

Rafael Yglesias’s beautiful and disturbing ninth novel concerns the largely companionable twenty-seven-year marriage of Enrique and Margaret Sabas, or more accurately, the first several weeks of their courtship and the last several weeks of Margaret’s life, with a dash of adultery and the death of a parent tossed in to represent the middle bits. The novel is heavily autobiographical—Enrique, like Yglesias, is a literary prodigy, having quit school at sixteen after the publication of his first novel. The story opens five years later, and Enrique, now twenty-one, is living the despondent life of the midlist novelist in a fifth-floor walk-up in Soho. Through an aspiring writer friend, he meets pretty, blue-eyed Margaret Cohen (Yglesias’s wife was also named Margaret), a cheerful young woman with vague artistic ambitions, with whom Enrique falls abruptly, agonizingly in love. Each tiny step toward intimacy—a late night spent talking until dawn, a phone call that yields not a date but an invitation to a large holiday dinner at Margaret’s studio apartment, a meal on the cheap at a neighborhood dive—moves them closer to the titular happy marriage.

These chapters of nostalgic courtship (you can practically feel Yglesias swoon with the joy of his recollections) are interwoven with an incisive, merciless recounting of Margaret’s death from bladder cancer. After three major surgeries, a half dozen minor surgeries, two remissions, and endless rounds of chemotherapy, the disease has rendered her, in early middle age, frail, bald, and without a functioning digestive system. She wants to be allowed to go home to die, and her excruciating demise consumes a large portion of the narrative.

Yglesias is a superb and courageous writer. His barefaced descriptions of Enrique’s insecurities about his masculinity, neurotic fussing over what to wear, and complete inability to perceive Margaret’s come-ons offer a useful primer on the male perspective on falling in love. Yglesias is equally unflinching in his recounting of Enrique’s affair with Margaret’s best friend, Sally, which transpired early in the marriage, after the birth of their first son, when Enrique had joined the ranks of serious novelists seduced by Hollywood. Enrique is a cad and a coward; rather than confess to his wife that he wants out, he suggests marriage counseling in the hope it will help ease the way to divorce. But Yglesias is shrewd: He knows that the more Enrique berates himself for his bad behavior, the more the reader is likely to absolve him.

There’s nothing remotely happy about the final days and hours of Margaret’s life, yet that section of the book constitutes a colossal (and admirable) display of Enrique’s devotion and love and a desperate mea culpa for the way the living betray the dying with their good health. One wonders what the real Margaret would have made of her husband’s meticulous detailing of her physical decline. It’s the classic artistic dilemma: Does a writer show allegiance to his vision or to the people he loves? The reader is told that even before she became sick, Margaret was “vainer than most of the women he knew who weren’t actresses.” We can only assume this is also true for the author’s beloved wife and that in the end, his love for her, as deep as it was, did not spare her from his writer’s gaze. Nevertheless, Yglesias’s riveting portrait of enduring love, with all its grand imperfections, manages a tricky literary feat: warming your heart as he breaks it.

Karen Karbo is the author of The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World’s Most Elegant Woman, forthcoming from skirt! in September, as well as three novels and a memoir, all of which have been named New York Times notable books.