By Bruce Jacobs

I Married You for Happiness by Lily Tuck (Atlantic Monthly Press, $24.00, 208 pp)

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28.00, 416 pp)

Marriage – that personal, sacramental, traditional institution which, despite centuries of battering and unraveling, seems to have avoided the scrap yards of obsolescence – is now flourishing anew. Amid all the excitement over same sex unions, two new books by award-winning American novelists came out almost simultaneously last fall that illustrate how complex these unions can be.

One of these novels approaches marriage from the perspective of young Ivy League college graduates struggling to find relationships that are special and different from those of their parents…presumably better. The other reflects on marriage from the perspective of an older woman on the night her husband of 40 years dies during a nap before dinner. No wonder marriage is on the rebound – it is an institution of enormous resilience that straddles a lifetime.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides is his third novel (his second, Middlesex, won a 2002 Pulitzer) and it has moved quickly to bestseller lists across the country. A giant billboard of Eugenides in a “Marlboro Man” vest helped broadcast this publishing event above Times Square. I Married You for Happiness by Lily Tuck is her fifth novel; it has received only modest critical attention even though her third novel, Siam, or The Woman Who Shot a Man, was nominated for a 1999 Pen/Faulkner Fiction Award and her fourth novel, The News from Paraguay won a 2004 National Book Award.

Here we have one universal subject, one similar release date, two good books (one perhaps great), two well-recognized writers, two traditional publishing houses…and yet, we have two vastly different commercial results. This is the story of the book business today, a story about advertising, about generational differences, about writing style, about publishing, and about market distribution.

Cool Beans vs. Emotional Struggles

Jeffrey Eugenides is something of a paradigm of the novelist of today as cool beans (e.g., Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan, or Jonathan Lethem), even though he doesn’t live in Brooklyn. He was born in Detroit in 1960 and published his first novel in 1993 at age 33. He is a graduate of Brown University, earned a masters degree from Stanford, and now teaches creative writing at Princeton. His shortest novel (his first, The Virgin Suicides) is 250 pages, but his last two have topped 400 pages each. After Oprah’s book club selection of Middlesex, the sales of his books are now easily in the millions of copies…and millions of dollars.

Lily Tuck, however, is another sort of paradigm – a well-traveled, multi-lingual stylist, contentedly publicity-shy but also unafraid to tackle the nuances of our deepest emotional and philosophical struggles. She was born in Paris in 1938, grew up in Peru and Uruguay, graduated from Radcliffe, and received a master’s degree in American Literature from the Sorbonne. Her first novel (Interviewing Matisse, or The Woman Who Died Standing Up) was published at age 53 in 1991 after marriage, the birth of three sons, divorce, and a second marriage. It was only 150 pages; in fact, none of her novels is more than 240 pages and the most recent is only 200 pages. Even with her prestigious awards, her books rarely, if ever, sell more than 30,000 copies. Her second husband of 25 years died in 2002, and she now lives quietly in Maine and New York City.

Patience and Imagination

Of course, what we like to think matters is not who the authors are or what kind of marketing muscle is behind them, but rather the quality of their work. Here too, the books are very different. A cursory comparison may be enlightening – Eugenides takes 400 pages to tell how one young couple in their exciting post-college independence stumble into marriage while Tuck needs a mere 200 pages to explore 40 years of a cross-border, cross-career, devoted (and not so devoted) marriage. Bring your patience to the Eugenides and your imagination to the Tuck. Each in its way will reward you.

The “marriage plot” of Eugenides eponymous novel refers to the basic narrative device that drove so many nineteenth century novels, and still seems to buoy the ubiquitous “chick lit” novels: who is going to marry whom, who steals whose lover, who sacrifices love for money, etc., etc. At the center of Eugenides’ novel are a group of Brown students on the eve of graduation. They are musicians, artists, writers, scientists…and all a bit full of themselves and earnest about their futures. It is the early 1980s. Sex is assumed, drugs are as much a part of the day as alcohol, hip-hop and funk play on the soundtrack, and cheap apartment décor prevails. Eugenides gets all the details right – perhaps because he was there.

You Are What You Study

Madeline Hanna is an English major from a tony New Jersey high school. Against her inclinations, she falls in love with Leonhard Bankhead, a spontaneous iconoclast majoring in philosophy and biology. His rival for her affections is the more reserved Mitchell Grammaticus, a religious studies major. (It seems that just as one’s job defines one in the real world, one’s major still defines one in the college world.) Madeline’s wealthy and very organized parents only want what is best for her…a life just like their own. Graduation day arrives, the mostly stoned graduates “walk,” and they leave for their next “meaningful” life activities – Grammaticus on a pilgrimage through Europe to a rural hospice in India, Leonhard to an internship at a prestigious biology lab on Cape Cod, and Madeline to live with Leonhard and “write.” Soon she discovers that Leonhard suffers from clinical manic-depression, and things fall apart after they impulsively marry in one of his manic phases. Poor Grammaticus returns from India too late to save her from her mistake.

It would be easy for Eugenides to leave his novel with some sort of happy resolution and the triumph of love, but that is not the way things go in a world where everyone is an intellectual, educated up to his neck in modern theories of literature and philosophy, and determined to make real life more than just a tired fiction plot. Alas, the reason fiction has lasted so long is because real life really is only a good story well-told.

A Simple Story, Filled with Unsaid Thoughts

If Eugenides runs long (too long) on the details of college, literary criticism, philosophical dialogue, and the ravages of mental disease; Tuck writes with spare observation about our subtle memories and elliptical conversations. She is of the writing school where “creativity comes with what you take out, not what you put in.” Her story is a simple one: Nina and Phillip fall in love in Paris, marry, she paints, he teaches probability and statistics, they travel and spend summers in France with their only child, Louise, they grow old, Phillip dies one evening as she prepares dinner, and Nina spends that night drinking a bottle of wine, musing about their past, and affectionately touching his face or lying beside his cold body wondering if he died happy.

As so many novels, and indeed experience, show us, all marriages are a mystery from the outside. Where Tuck takes her jewel of a novel is inside a marriage – from which perspective marriage proves to be just as mysterious as it is from the outside. Her snapshots of a forty year marriage include things she never told Phillip: a brief affair, a rape and abortion, even the extravagant purchase of an Italian handbag. Similarly, she wonders about all the women in his life: a high school girl friend killed while he was driving her home from a party, several of his female students and colleagues, even someone named Isabel who turned out to be the name of his software program. And Louise…did her special relationship with her father mean she felt less attachment to her mother? Nina postpones calling her daughter with the news of Phillip’s death until morning so as not to interrupt an imagined romantic evening in California.

What a busy night Nina has inside her head even though it is described in so few pages. In fact, Tuck has nearly summarized her whole novel in just the first sentence: “His hand is growing cold; still she holds it.” It is almost all there: the long attachment where passion wanes, where things go unsaid, where nonetheless married life becomes nearly impossible to let go of…and so in its way becomes indeed a marriage of “happiness.”

Tuck’s exquisite little novel tells much more about love and marriage than does Eugenides’ long meditation on young love. Maybe it has to do with age after all. Tuck has twenty years on him and waited until her fifties to publish her first novel. By that time she learned that life is not as complicated as the young seem to think, but also more complicated in different ways; that fiction is not about how cleverly one can arrange lots of words, but about how well one can arrange a very few words; and finally, that success is not about Oprah and billboards in Times Square, but about slowly refining one’s art.

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