Anne Roiphe has written a brave book. Married, a fine predicament* challenges a commitment-phobic generation to reconsider the value of marriage. Freedom of choice, she argues, is not the same as a better choice. 'Monogamy has its price. But it has its rewards too.'
She writes in a style that befits a successful novelist. The book is a pleasure to read, well constructed and at times lyrical. It also has 'heart' as she lets us into her own life and inner struggles. Her work is lightened by flashes of humour-'I have exercised a Darwinian approach to plates. Only those that can survive the dishwasher, survive.'
Her main thesis is that marriage is the best place to bring up children and, at its best, the ideal relationship between a mature man and woman. 'The fact is that no one has come up with a better idea for raising the next generation. No one has created an adequate substitute for the love of a man for his wife and a wife for her man and the fierce connection of both of them to their children.... We come from a domestic species. We want a hearth. What makes me shiver with fear for my daughters is that they may never have one.'
What makes Roiphe's stance notable is that she is not writing from a conservative religious background. An outspoken feminist, as a young person she embraced the liberal ideas of the 1960s with enthusiasm. She was stung when, in 1973, a 16-year-old teenager said to her, 'You and Dad are the only people on the face of this planet who believe in fidelity anymore. You're so out of date.'
Roiphe may be a romantic but she's certainly not a blind one. Her own first marriage was a disaster and she is all too aware of the risks and potential heartache involved in the search for the ideal partner. She offers plenty of sound advice, not least in a moving 'letter to any daughter who will one day decide to get married, maybe': 'I know you don't want to hear from me on this subject but this is my book and you can't stop me,' she begins. 'I am expecting you not to marry like a screaming teeny-bopper at a concert. I want you to know what you need to do in a clear practical way to give your marriage an odds on chance of success.' She talks of the importance of compromise and, equally, of independence.
Elsewhere she asks, 'What keeps a marriage going in hard times?'
'The easy answer is love. If you just love your partner sufficiently then the rough seas toss you together instead of pulling you apart.' Then, typically, she gets real. 'The easy answer is far too easy. In fact it's silly. It takes a lot more than mere love to support and maintain marriage through foul periods. It requires grit. It takes patience and discipline and a little bit of luck, also fear of change helps.... Habits are hard to break and one's spouse and one's life with one's spouse is definitely a habit-ridden matter. This unromantic fact alone may keep you from fleeing your home when things are going badly.'
Roiphe is a liberal at heart, no 'family values crusader' - 'I don't believe that my way is the only way or the moral way to live.... I don't want to condemn anyone or legislate anything. What I do is my choice intended for my life alone. What others do is their own decision.'
Whilst I certainly would not want to condemn anyone, I don't personally feel able to be that liberal. I believe that our choices affect others, for good or ill; and that the collapse of family life in the Western world is the cause of untold suffering. Marriage is not necessarily an easy option but it is the right framework in which to bring up the next generation.
Roiphe's approach is essentially pragmatic. 'I myself can only be faithful, not because of a sacred vow, not because of the children... but because I have something I don't want to bruise or crumple. I want my love just as it is for as long as fate will allow.'
Marriage is the ideal, she writes, but if it clearly isn't working, there comes a point where it is better to try again. Not for her 'the absolutes of a church as it interprets God's will. Some of us would think that same God might want us to love and be loved and to have the courage to undo a mistake and try again.'
Whilst I would agree that there are circumstances where someone should leave a partner - if he or she is physically abusive, for example - I feel that Roiphe could have said more about how to avoid reaching the point of no return.
Few marriages suddenly blow asunder without any warning. Even if 'made in heaven' a marriage doesn't start perfect. It has to be worked on in down-to-earth ways. Both partners bring their 'baggage' of assumptions, fears and expectations into the relationship, and the chances are that they will discover sides of each other that are less than endearing. As the partners open up towards each other the relationship has to evolve. This is a wonderful, enriching process but it is here that 'mistakes' can be made - perhaps in the form of minor resentments, or insensitive or selfish behaviour. In themselves these may be trivial but, unless dealt with, there can be a build-up of tension, hurt or misunderstanding that will lead to more serious problems.
Personally, I would suggest that one of the mainstays of marriage should be to face together the issues that arise, talk them through and undo any mistakes as quickly as possible using the simple tools of honesty, unselfishness, apology where appropriate and a determination to work things out.
To be married to an incompatible person is, of course, a tragedy - and the fear of this is doubtless what makes many hesitate to get married. Yet, Rophie argues, even 'after years of splitting the rent' getting married may be a leap of faith: 'Marriage may be something one can't rehearse.... The full impact of our struggles, of our memories, of our ways of hiding and revealing ourselves does not seem to reveal itself until a legal marriage is underway.'
But surely most worthwhile things in life involve an act of faith? This may be hard, but the alternative would be a safe life of dull predictability - which is scarcely more attractive.
Like all good novelists Roiphe ends her book with an unexpected twist. This book is worth reading that far.
*'Married: a fine predicament,' Bloomsbury Publishing, London 2003,
ISBN 0 7475 6252 0