“His hand is growing cold, still she holds it”

#72 of 2012 • I Married You for Happiness, by Lily Tuck

It takes a while, I’ve learned, to reclaim the rhythms of your reading life after it having been atrophied for so long—more so, infuriatingly enough, to maintain those rhythms. In desperation, you return to the kind of books you’re confident are yours, written with you in mind as the ideal reader. A desperation because, well, consider the existential crisis: After months of erratic reading—of rarely being able to immerse yourself in a book as you used to (and with an alarming yet deeply rewarding frequency)—I wondered what it was I really liked to read, and if it would be so easy to slip into them once again.

Lily Tuck’s I Married You for Happiness was a book I’d long espied on other people’s blogs, and dearly wished for myself. I wanted it badly—it would be deeply reflective, I gathered; it was about a marriage, and there’s nothing like the Domestic and its myriad tensions to get me going. There were bad reviews here and there, about implausibility, unlikeability, slowness, lack of linearity—sometimes, all of the above. Not facets I usually concerned myself with, but I was gun-shy: When I saw the book in a bookstore, I didn’t buy it. I’d return to that bookstore again and again, then tell myself that it’s just not me anymore. What use did I have for marriages?

And then I had to buy it. Very casually, one day during a bookstore run I had no business of making, I picked it up: Might as well, I told myself, it’s on sale anyway. The nonchalance fooled it none, looking back—as soon as I got home, I tore the wrapper open and began reading. “His hand is growing cold,” began the book, “still she holds it.”

The book is a vigil. Nina spends the night with her husband Philip, who has just died. His body is unmoving on the bed they have shared for some 43 years, dinner has long grown cold downstairs, and Nina sits there with her Philip, keeping watch over him. As with any vigil, the mind slips in and out of the present—as she holds Philip’s hand growing cold, Nina reviews the romance of their early years, the infidelities struck, the suspicions aroused, and a marriage. A long marriage that has just ended.

To focus my love for this book, to make sense of my blabby self, I’ll address what other people have seen as this book’s flaws. One, it is implausible. Yes, I quite agree. There’s an idealism to it all—how they first meet in a café in Paris, for example, how Philip simply asks if this seat is taken. And the days that followed, them making love in cramped quarters all over the city of Lurve. More un-realism: How could Philip and Nina, a mathematician and a painter respectively (and one gets the impression that Nina is not at all famed), afford all those trips all over the world?

Well, yes, it is implausible. The entire novel is self-indulgent, reading like a short story that got out of hand because there’s too much richness to try to stifle—or to even attempt contain would result in a piece so dense it’d wring the reader dry. But pooh-pooh on reality. This is authorial will we have here, and the priority is romanticism. Not romance, per se, not even idealism—just the experience of a shared life that was not so bad, was it?

And then, the unlikeability. Nina, some have grumbled, is unlikeable because of her life choices, and especially in contrast to sweet, silent, long-suffering Philip. It’s not so much the reaching for moral ascendancy that gnaws at me, it’s the fact that within the novel, it works that way. Someone has to be the villain in this relationship at this juncture—and because Nina’s alive, and because she loves this man just dead, she’s going to take the hit. I’m not saying that Nina’s set herself out to be a martyr. Far from it: There’s a matter-of-factness to Nina’s lyrical narrative. This is how I was when we were married, is her plain-speaking. She flirts and sleeps with other men, she gets raped with an acquaintance whose baby she’d also abort without telling her Philip. This is how she was when they were married.

And then, the slowness. There is slowness—like molasses, isn’t that the phrase? I point you to J.L. Carr’s conscious tedium, which I never did transcend. That is slowness, contrived or otherwise. This, Lily Tuck’s tidy little book, this is quietness. Again: It’s a vigil. There’s a solemnness to the recounting of 43 years of marriage, but it’s always charged. That’s what reminiscence does. That’s what reminiscence at such a dire, completely final stage does. Look beyond the surface where nothing happens—look at the volatility between these two, look how Nina grows jealous too easily, how Philip is so painfully ignorant, how Philip addresses his class. The very fact that Nina imagines her Philip addressing his class.

And, at last, the lack of linearity. In and out through scenes she goes, recalling and glimpsing and reiterating. Each moment of their marriage painstakingly revealed, as is the entirety of it. Obviously, the vignettes serve a purpose: To define a marriage through scenes. Are they milestones in a life shared? Not necessarily—though they are always charged. It’s books like this that confirm what fertile ground for literature marriage is. Then why these scenes? I could think of reasons, but the fact is they feel right. More importantly, they feel whole. They make this marriage whole and real for us.

All these elements come together and highlight the inherent sadness of Nina’s endeavor, and its necessity. Reliving 43 years of marriage—all the sins committed against each other, all the guilt carried and may well continue to, as well as all the love—all the giddy romance, all the breathless wonder of each other’s existence, and all those affirming, quiet moments where you simply love. There’s something relentlessly beautiful about the futility of this vigil. How pointless it is, ultimately—but how inevitable. Just—damn, Lily Tuck.

It’s love between me and this book. I’m fully enamored. I’m it’s ideal reader, as simple as that. Consider my reading existence affirmed, ladies and gentlemen. [Now, for that whole ‘nother creature that is constant, if continuous reaffirmation.]

Oh, a final note: This title has been inducted into my special collection of writerly bitterness, which contains all the titles and turns of phrase that evoke deep envy in me, and on bad days, self-flagellation. How could you be so daft as to miss that, Sasha?

PSA: I bought I Married You for Happiness at National Bookstore (the Cubao branch, during the Cut-Price Sale last August). Original price is Php825.

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6 comments

  1. I agree completely! I stayed up late into the night reading this book because I felt that i couldn’t leave Nina be by herself. What a beautiful book!

    1. Wonderful insight; that’s definitely how I felt. Nina was on a vigil, and because we each felt for her, we simply couldn’t leave her alone. Beautiful, indeed. And the emotions it evokes.

  2. I love books that evoke writerly bitterness. I haven’t heard of this one but any story set in Paris can’t help but intrigue me.

  3. As for linearity. If the world is not linear, not progressive, not historical, but instead discontinuous, event ridden, then why must we demand writing be what the world is not.

  4. Haven’t read this, but I know exactly what you mean – I wasn’t able to read English novels for almost a year due to the constraints of living overseas (I was in China lol) and afterwards it felt so unnatural to maintain those rhythms, as you say!

    The book itself sounds lovely, and it’s going on my wishlist! :)

  5. From the looks of it, I might be an ideal reader contender for it, too. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

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