Lisa Zeidner is the author of five novels, most recently “Love Bomb.” She teaches at Rutgers University in Camden.
It’s peak wedding season, and Ada Calhoun’s “Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give” is a fine gift to tuck between the negligees and garter belts at the more literary bride’s shower. A breezy, warm-hearted meditation on the nature of matrimony, the book began as a “Modern Love” column in the New York Times. Like many of the essays that appear there, the chapters, with titles such as “The Boring Parts” and “The Truth About Soul Mates,” are designed to encourage readers’ ruminations about their own triumphs and hardships in love.
Calhoun, a journalist, has rich autobiographical material: She’s been married for 12 years to her current husband, has a youthful short-lived marriage behind her, and is mother to one son and a stepson. She uses confessions about her teenage crushes and near-infidelities as a springboard for generalizations about wedded trials or bliss. The book ends with a long bibliography and is peppered with quotes from other writers — Thomas More, James Baldwin, Pope Francis, “modern relationship sage Tyler Perry” and Calhoun’s mother, who delivers perhaps the most pithy advice on the best way to stay married: “You don’t get divorced.”
Calhoun’s marriage, to the oft-admiringly-quoted musician Neal, appears to be a solid one, with plenty of respect and honesty, peppered with in-jokes. Her wry, likable voice is at its Ephronesque best in these passages, which celebrate the joys of the daily. On the frustrating repetitions of rearing a toddler: “With ‘Dora the Explorer’ on, no one can hear you scream.” On spats during home renovation projects: “Because I like to fix broken things quickly and as shoddily as possible (Neal describes my renovation aesthetic as ‘Little Rascals Clubhouse’), I frequently receive the advice ‘Don’t just do something, stand there.’ ” Only occasionally do her glowing reports veer into the territory of the humble-brag or gloat. “Neal denies me nothing. He is great in bed and would just as soon we had sex every day.”
Readers looking for fresh wisdom may be unimpressed to hear that marriage isn’t always thrilling, that it requires compromise or that “the romantic fairy tales we grew up with . . . are not useful for grown-ups.” The book is surprisingly short on insights from psychologists or couples counselors on common marital problems, or on how past family dynamics, endlessly replayed, can doom a marriage. There are few interactions — much less hostility — with parents or in-laws; there are no nasty ex-wives or custody battles; no drunks or swindlers or wife-beaters. Indeed, the basic tenor of the book is Nice — the kind of things you would actually want to voice in a wedding toast.
If I may add two favorite works to Calhoun’s bibliography, I recommend British psychiatrist Adam Phillips’s “Monogamy” (in short: it’s frustrating) and Maggie Scarf’s “Intimate Partners: Patterns in Love and Marriage” (in short: it’s complicated). These are both deeper, darker works. But you can’t really fault Calhoun for having married well or for being stalwartly good-natured. She often advocates a kind of cheerful moderation:
“I’ve noticed that Neal and I need some distance to feel attraction. If we’re too connected, there’s no space to bridge with desire. If we’re too far apart, we become estranged. I’ve begun to suspect that, regardless of what women’s magazines tell us, there might be no way to reach peak sexiness and perfect security simultaneously, that marriage might just involve finding and refinding our own balance between boredom and jealousy, safety and danger.”
A chapter called “Love Is Strong as Death” contains most of the reports from longer-term marriages and older couples, with many partners confessing that they often considered bolting. In fact, one thing that “Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give” reminds us is that Calhoun’s coordinates on the marital timeline may represent a golden moment. At 12 years, you’re past the seven-year itch. If you’ve had kids, you’ve weathered the most challenging early child-rearing patch but haven’t yet approached the next rough child-rearing patch, adolescence. (The stepson doesn’t get a lot of airtime.)
Calhoun is, in short, the ideal person to deliver a champagne toast before the dancing begins: a little older, a little wiser, but not so old and wise that she has lost her effervescent hopefulness. More jaunty than jaded, she’s still a firm believer in “moments of grace” that transform an ordinary marriage into something consecrated. “These moments are like shooting stars: you see them only if you’re watching, and you see them more clearly when it’s dark.”
By Ada Calhoun
W.W. Norton and Co. 192 pp. $24.95