Fourth Estate £12.99

I Married You For Happiness, By Lily Tuck

The professor and the painter:a marriage made in heaven

Philip has just died quietly of a heart attack, and his wife Nina is left with his body until morning, fitfully remembering their 42 years as a couple. That is the simple premise of I Married You For Happiness: a successful marriage, tenderly described by its survivor. It is set out in broken up lines of dialogue and brief paragraphs which flit between decades and countries, as Nina sleeplessly pieces together the relationship from first meeting to last breath.

Her free flowing, apparently haphazard recollections belie the novel's precise structure, and its intricately repeating threads of imagery and phrases. One such recurrence is the academic language used by maths professor Philip; a dialect which becomes an inextricable part of the marriage. Philip laughingly explains a problem involving mating rabbits to Nina as they lie in bed together; Nina thinks of Philip's death in the same abstract way she imagines Schrödinger's cat.

In extracts from Philip's lectures which are scattered through the novel, he uses his marriage as examples for his students: how many hours of sleep he and his wife are likely to get with a newborn; how likely his wife is to have an affair; how likely it is that he will die before her. At one point Nina feels threatened by Lorna, a beautiful physicist colleague who can more ably speak their shared language.

While Philip has theorems, Nina has her paintings. Her art never quite transitions from hobby to career – a fact cruelly pointed out by her daughter, Louise, during an argument – but is reflected in her narrative, which is often akin to a collection of still lifes shown one by one. There is her memory of getting high, "Stretched out ... on the yellow synthetic rug that has a sour chemical smell, the window shades drawn, the room dark as night, she listens to a recording of wolf howls"; her recollection of a friend's sailing trip, when a whale attached itself to the boat and wouldn't leave for days, "little eyes staring up at me in the dark"; or of children on the roadside during her honeymoon in Mexico, staring "in mute disbelief, selling iguanas ... tied up with string".

There is a risk, in these isolated vignettes and stylish prose poems, of shallowness, and of neglecting the wrench of grief in favour of prettiness. However, the novel's framing device, which sees Nina as an old woman wandering the house on her first night alone, grounds the narrative, even when Nina's younger versions seem wrapped up in their own elegance. The minute actions Nina takes in the present, such as putting on Philip's old yellow wind-breaker, then changing into a red coat he gave her as a gift, give greater emotional weight to her past dramas.

I Married You For Happiness's most distracting flaw is a tendency to name-drop, often with little justification. Socrates, Pascal, Nabokov, and James Dickey are all referenced, seemingly to give the novel some intellectual heft, although the effect is actually one of superficiality. But such complaints are minor, considering the rarity of a fictional account which evokes so tenderly, but without sentimentality, what it is to be in a long and happy marriage. There have been recent non-fiction examples – Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, Joyce Carol Oates's A Widow's Tale – but these are principally confessionals. Lily Tuck has written an elegiac, original work which memorialises how two ordinary lives fit together.

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