Story of My Wife
Sunday, December 31, 2006
NEW YORK It is a truth universally acknowledged that getting a happy marriage down on the page is one of the hardest challenges a writer can take on.
"All happy families are alike," as that best-selling chronicler of marital misery Leo Tolstoy famously put it -- the unstated corollary being that if Tolstoy had churned out heartwarming tales of wedded bliss, his readers would have flocked to Dostoyevsky in droves.
Or, as Calvin Trillin likes to say when invited to speak at writing conferences: "It's this hideous disadvantage, not having any bestiality to report."
This makes what Trillin has accomplished with his latest book all the more impressive:
He's made his own family's happiness come alive.
The book is called "About Alice," and it's expanded -- though not much -- from a New Yorker piece that appeared in March. The title refers to the smart, confident, beautiful woman with the strongly held opinions who transformed his existence when he had the luck to "wander into the right party" in 1963. The result was a connection Trillin friends tend to describe with phrases like "as true a love story as I ever saw."
For decades, he had the good sense not to attempt deconstruction of his marriage in print.
Oh, he'd written plenty about Alice over the years. She appeared as a kind of sitcom character ("a dietitian in sensible shoes," as she once put it) in her husband's lighter writings, collected in books with titles like "Travels With Alice" and "Alice, Let's Eat." In the latter she was described -- in an opening line perhaps less immortal than Tolstoy's, but memorable nonetheless -- as having "a weird predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day."
But he'd never done anything like "About Alice," which was published this week, five years after her death from heart failure at 63.
"I was trying to make her a real person," Trillin says.
He wrote about the Alice who attracted what he called "guys smoking pipes" at parties and could explain concepts like heuristics to an intellectually challenged spouse. Who was constantly "involved in taking care of someone else." Who dealt systematically with problems that came up, whether they were "the small matters of logistics and maintenance that were known around our house as Administrative Caca, or serious issues, of, say, catastrophic illness or financial disaster." Who retained "something close to a child's sense of wonderment," as demonstrated by the fact that she was "the only adult I ever knew who might respond to encountering a deer on a forest path by saying, 'Wowsers!' "
In the process, he evoked a lovingly enmeshed family it's hard not to wish you were part of -- yet whose blessings would likely have lulled the author of "Anna Karenina" to sleep.