The Novel Cure: Literary prescriptions for having a partner who is ill


Ailment: Having a partner who is ill

Cure: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Living with someone who is ill can be almost as hard as suffering the illness yourself. The lack of energy, cheer and resourcefulness coming from your partner leaves you having to provide all these things yourself. And however much you love your partner and empathise with their suffering, it's hard to avoid catching some of the side-effects – lethargy, for instance. If you find yourself in the role of nurse or rescuer a lot of the time, let The Marriage Plot take you out for a tête-à-tête.

When Madeleine Hanna, an English major with a passion for Austen and Eliot and the 'marriage plot' around which such novels revolve, meets the tobacco-chewing Leonard in a semiotics class at Brown University in the Eighties, she has no idea about his lurking mental issues. She falls for him when he rescues her from an embarrassing moment in class, and this sets the initial dynamic between them, with clever Leonard always one step ahead. But then Leonard drops out of Madeleine's life abruptly. She discovers him in hospital struggling to keep a grip on his mind – and from then on it's Madeleine who must rescue Leonard.

Everyone but Madeleine can see that staying with Leonard will be to live with constant disappointment and several do their best to warn her off him. Of course, this makes Madeleine all the more determined to prove them wrong, especially when it's her parents. "Madeleine thinks she can save Leonard," says her mother to Marshall, the third player in the love triangle. "But the truth is that he either can't be saved or doesn't want to be." As Leonard himself eventually shows everyone, those who love him most may, in fact, be the least able to help.

Madeleine and Leonard's solution may not be yours, but this novel will help you stand back and see that if you find yourself in a long-term caring role, you may also need some rescuing yourself.

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