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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
    This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

    Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

    Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
    We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

    Inside the E15 'occupation'

    We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
    Witches: A history of misogyny

    Witches: A history of misogyny

    The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
    Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
    'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style