Monday, April 4, 2016

Literary Wives #20!!

The Happy Marriage
and translated by
André Naffis-Sahely
Honestly, I hardly know where to begin with this review.
When I first read the publisher's blurb, I didn't think 
this book sounded like something I would enjoy.
Then it was brought to the attention of some of the other 
cohosting bloggers of the Literary Wives online book discussion group, 
and we decided to ask the publisher for free review copies.
It was one of the first times I can recall receiving such a quick response from 
a publisher, and within 2 weeks we had all received our copies of this book!
Thank you very much to Melville House
Regardless of that, we are all offering our honest and heartfelt reviews!

Perhaps the best thing I can do at this point is direct you
to much more knowledgeable and professional critiques of this work. 

Here is the review written by Robin Yassin-Kassab, 
published in the January 30, 2016, 
edition of The Guardian.

Here is the review written by Boyd Tonkin, 
published in the January 21, 2016, 
edition of Independent.

Here is the review written by Malcolm Forbes, 
published in the April 3, 2016, 
edition of The National.

Here is the Publisher's Weekly review.

And...don't forget to check out the other cohosting bloggers' reviews:
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J
Ariel of One Little Library
(Welcome back Ariel!!)
Noami of Consumed by Ink
Kay of whatmeread
Click here for more information about Literary Wives and 
other co-hosting bloggers currently on hiatus!
Check out our Facebook page!

UPDATE: (4-5-16) In a quick aside, in researching the author and book a bit more, I believe my first instinct may well be correct. Jelloun evidently has before questioned the rigid patriarchal Islamic view of marriage. I did feel that the artist's rather disconnected 'voice' was meant to be representative of Muslim males, whereas the much more direct, individualized, and curt 'voice' of his wife, Amina, was meant to represent individual Muslim females as they begin to try to assert themselves in such rigid 'religious' unions. I believe that may have been part of his intent. This book has certainly provoked meaningful discussion amongst us!
Check out this great review written by Tony Malone that 
I found in Words Without Borders, The Online Magazine for International Literature.

Reading these reviews did help me place this book within Morocco's political history. The new Moudawana family law code took effect in 2003, the same year that this book ends and a divorce is being worked out by Amina's and the artist's lawyers. There is a possibility that Amina could take him to court and detail his many extramarital affairs, thereby entitling her to a hefty financial settlement. The artist has been told by several of his male friends that they were left destitute in the wake of their divorces, since they were made to give their wives virtually everything (house, car, property, alimony, and other financial payments) in the court-ordered settlement. My assumption is that prior to the enactment of these laws, women/wives had virtually no legal claims against their husbands; men could do as they damn well pleased and the women were helpless and left destitute if they legally ended their marriage. At least this gave me some additional understanding of the overall situation between the artist and his wife, Amina. Without such legal rights, women would definitely be encouraged to remain in marriages despite abuse, unhappiness, etc. We learn the artist is Muslim, as he mentions the Qur'an. When I read this, I wondered what that bit of information was to indicate. That he was the male and therefore should control everything and his wife should be submissive? Or is that simply a 'Western' oversimplification? However, when I discovered Islam is the most common religion in Morocco, I could then understand perhaps a bit better just how the civil law may well override/disrupt the religious practices and challenge the patriarchal hierarchy within family units. 

This book has been compared to Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, which was not a book I enjoyed reading either. (Sorry, President Obama, while I really like you and appreciate your efforts as President, I definitely disagree with your selection of Groff's book as the best for 2015.) So that comparison did not encourage me. As soon as I received my copy I read the first 20 pages or so, and immediately decided I'd better wait to read it, 'cause it was not resonating with me at that time. Then I started it again this past week. Unfortunately, I had the same feeling I'd had before, but I had made a commitment to read and review it for Literary Wives, and by golly, that's what I did! (Much to my chagrin...) 

I found it impossible to connect with the artist character in any way other than sympathizing with his disability, particularly when he couldn't even swat at a fly on his nose to shoo it away. Nor could he speak well enough or make enough noise for one of the two "Twins" to help him get rid of the obnoxious fly. Or...
A string of drool hung form his half-open mouth. From time to time, 
one of the Twins would gently wipe it away. This would stir him back into consciousness, 
and he would feel ashamed that he's been unable to contain his spittle, ashamed that he'd dozed off. It was these little things that bothered him the most, rather than the fact he was paralyzed. 

The illness had changed his habits. Was it an illness or was it death? (9)

When your life is in someone else's hands, is it still really a life? (27)
It is true that what we miss most are those seemingly minor abilities that we take for granted when we are healthyBut there my sympathy ends. And as I read, I realized that there are some people who would believe this stroke and resulting paralysis happened to him as punishment for his infidelity, etc. Be that as it may, I honestly found the prose uninteresting. I was bored as I read. I seemed to pause every 5-8 pages to 'count' how many pages I'd read, telling myself I could read at least that many more... Sad. This book just did not resonate with me. I would have preferred a bit more balance of negative and positive characteristics in both characters, but especially the artist, since almost 75% of the book is him...whining, griping, and complaining, except when he waxes on about the many many women with whom he had affairs, which definitely seemed boastful! 

I found it disingenuous at best for him to proclaim that he truly and genuinely loved any of these women. I was unable to picture him as capable of a monogamous relationship. At least not one in which he remained 'faithful.' Now, to be fair, I have a tough time dealing with people who cheat on their spouses. For me, there is no 'excuse' or rationale that can justify that. If you don't intend to remain faithful, then don't make a long-term/lifetime commitment to a monogamous relationship! And...if you are that unhappy, end that relationship FIRST! Then go screw around with other people. In my mind, a person must make a CHOICE, a conscientious decision, to have sex with another individual, whether married or not, I do not buy the argument that it "just happens." With that said, as I have noted before, I have friends who have cheated in their marriage, though they were separated and contemplating divorce at the time. And...I am still friends with them. However, having been the 'faithful' person whose spouse was 'unfaithful' I am rather rigid on that issue in my own relationships! To say I disliked the artist is a drastic understatement--I could find nothing to like about him. I could perhaps appreciate his artistic skill, but that is it. And, I do not have to like a character to appreciate the characterization, but again, I was just unable to connect with this person in any meaningful way. The writing just didn't work well for me at all. 

The artist convinces Amina to see a marriage counselor, but she only attends one session and when the artist returns by himself:
She came because she thinks you're deranged, while she's in perfect mental health. She's completely wrong, of course, but I'm unable to help people who aren't yet ready for therapy. (67)
This is very true and something few seem to realize. For example, several of my own therapists have commented on the seeming futility of most court-ordered therapy. It sounds good, but if the client isn't willing to participate fully and try to implement change, it is useless. He continues:
For that reason, couples' therapy isn't advisable at this present moment. 
So, what should I advise you to do? Divorce? Separate? Resign yourself? Run away? 
You're going to have to be the one to make that choice. It's yours and yours alone. 
The problems will always be there. People never really change. 
That's not my opinion, it's the wisdom of the ancients. Good luck. (67)
A bit on the pessimistic side, if you ask me. There is always the possibility for change. And, really, this is totally unprofessional and inappropriate for him to say. Though if he is also Muslim? Would that perhaps make a difference? I don't was just my first thought. It would have been interesting to hear Amina's interpretation of the first appointment, but as I recall, we did not. Interestingly, as we read the long list each of these two characters prepares regarding what they don't like about their spouse, there are several mundane everyday annoyances and frustrations included... 

The artist of Amina:
My wife annoys me at least once a day. (180)
That's the definition of living together, isn't it? :)
My wife confuses "good" with "true" and "false" with "bad." (180)
Uh...I would argue those are absolutely correct!! Only a liar would confuse those terms as he evidently does! 
My wife is in love with love and the idea of a Prince Charming. (178)
Or, perhaps she just expects her husband to be a generous kind-hearted faithful soul! Though she does describe reading romantic fairy tales as a child and imagining herself as the heroine. But what person hasn't done that during childhood? 
My wife is sweet to everyone except her husband. (179)
Perhaps that is true, and if so, it is a deal-breaker as far as a long-term committed relationship is concerned. You can live with someone like this, but it isn't pleasant and eventually, you no longer want to endure that person day in and day out. (At least I didn't...)

And Amina of the artist:
My husband eats really quickly, and that annoys me. (287)
Get over it already... :(
My husband snores and shifts around in bed. (287)
Oops! Well, my husband could speak to the annoyance of sleeping with someone who snores...boy, could he! But...we both shift around in bed... :)
My husband claims he loves women too much, which is a lie, he can't even love his wife. (289)
Yes, that would be a good place to start, wouldn't it? 
My husband is bad-tempered and nervous when he's with me, but charming with others. (287)
Oh, boy. Did this bring back memories. I used to tell my ex-husband that if he'd only treat me at least half as well as he did his friends, we could get along much better. In response his eyes would usually glaze over as if he didn't understand. (I don't think he did.)

I did find it interesting that although Amina's family was indigenous Berber and therefore much more in tune with and likely to use the 'dark arts,' supposedly, the artist's sisters had also planted various objects around the house to influence and/or sicken Amina. So, objects had been planted in both the artist's studio and the house. Was any of this responsible for either of their illnesses/behaviors? We do not know... However, the artist blames a neighbor, Lallah for much of his wife's aggressive non-cooperative behaviors. (Anything not to take responsibility, eh?) 

There were absurd aspects to this book. For instance, Criss, one of his many lovers, as she was leaving and breaking up with him,
I'll always be your friend, we just won't be having sex anymore. 
I love solitude, and sometimes I betray that solitude by spending time 
with men who are much like you, artists who are famous, but not too tall. (120)
At this point I exclaim aloud, "What?!?" What difference does height make? :)
Then I go back to my solitary life and my work, which I'm very passionate about 
and which gives me a great deal of satisfaction. 
When I get horny, I pleasure myself and occasionally use a vibrator to orgasm. (120)
This is when I think to myself...WTMI!! Sheesh! Actually, this sounded more like something I might expect a male to say to a female, not vice versa. 
There we have it, darling. Know that we had something very beautiful and very intense. Goodbye! (120)
And...she's gone! Perhaps he's better off without her? Or perhaps they're just two of a kind!

Jelloun did manage to include some valid commentary about being disabled.
Good health, both physical and psychological, always conceals reality; 
it prevents us from seeing the vulnerabilities of others, the occasionally cavernous wounds 
of those who are struck down by fate. We simply walk past them, and while in the best of cases we feel a pang of pity, we ultimately continue on our own path. (21)
All too true. I make a special effort whenever I can to speak to and smile at any person with whom I have contact who appears to maybe have a disability since the most common complaint is the lack of being treated 'normally' (just as we would treat anyone else) by others. I try to strike up a conversation just as I would with anyone else, if they appear receptive. But so many times those of us who are healthy totally ignore or shut those out of our lives who are dealing with illness/disability. The artist discusses this, ruing the fact that his own wife doesn't even come to see him while he is partially paralyzed.

After three long years, the artist/painter is finally able to once again hold a brush and paint, albeit on much smaller canvases than before. 
...even though his body was recuperating, he quickly realized that his marriage would never heal. 
Soon enough, arguments began to creep back into their daily lives, to the point that he started to yearn for those months when he'd been paralyzed and confined to his bed and his wheelchair, 
but at least far removed from her. (160)
Wow...that IS bad...
He'd never understood the concept of power or those who fought to the death trying to attain it.
It just didn't interest him. (166)
My first thought upon reading this? Of course not. As a male, he historically always HAD power! That may just be the feminist in me talking... :)
He'd never left a woman, it was always women who got angry with him and left him. (167)
Uhm...does he consider this to be a good thing? 'Cause I don' me that just denotes he really doesn't care.
He always tried to remain friends with them, and unfortunately for him he usually succeeded.
He would be happy to see them again and occasionally resumed his former relationship with them.           He was pleased with the ambiguity of these situations and how flexible they were, even though deep down he knew he couldn't keep that artificial and unhealthy balancing act going forever. (167)
So he supposedly did realize the truth of his transgressions... Loving the "ambiguity" and "flexibility"? Egad. That made me nauseous, at the very least! And Amina speaks of "flexibility" when describing the artist:
He was always keen on smoothing things over, avoiding scenes, no scandals or noises, it was better to remain calm and stay flexible. "To turn a blind eye..." (246)
Of course it was to his advantage to advocate such a philosophy! What an asshole. 

And now to answer that 'Wife' question!
What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife? 

Interestingly, we, the readers, never get a real hint or clue as to what is 'accurate' or 'inaccurate' as reported in the book. So we are truly clueless as to how these two people treated each other and who to believe. Given that 75% of the book is devoted to the artist/painter describing his perspective, I can only imagine that we are to concentrate on him and his "story." Of course, I am reminded yet once again, that all memories are skewed by the person doing the remembering. There is rarely, if ever, a truly accurate "eye-witness account" of any memory, because our brains filter and interpret such 'objective' data quite differently. Scientific studies keep proving this over and over. (There are TED talks, etc., about just this phenomenon.) Obviously, neither person is happy or fulfilled in this relationship, and hasn't been for a long long time. 

While he'd never necessarily wanted his wife to one day grow docile and submissive, he had always harbored a secret hope that she would at least become loving and obliging, calm and reasonable, in short, a wife who could help him build a family life and then share it with him. 
It had been his dream. But he'd been misguided and he had instead oppressed his wife, 
forgetting to acknowledge his share of  responsibility for that failure. (11)
Uhm...hello! When you cheat on your wife, don't expect her to be a good partner to you! Period! What an asshole! :) And here was a bit of hint that perhaps this narrator wasn't to be trusted since he is admitting to "oppressing" his wife... Hmmmm...

Imane's story of the woman who literally ate her husband and only spit him out when she wanted him out, and he would always do her bidding. 
Other women followed her example and that's how the tribe of man-eaters was born.
Ever since then, peace has prevailed in this country where 
the swallowed men no longer have a say. (202)
This was another spot that felt absurd to me, unless she was hinting that this was Amina's tribe...and that she believed this was what had happened to the artist or that this was Amina's goal, for as we learn, she had also manipulated Imane.

The artist's letter to Amina:
Be reasonable, I beg you, and be at peace with the fact that we don't love each other anymore.
Love isn't a decision or something that can be forced.
It comes to us and then just as easily goes away again... There's nothing we can do about that... (209)
You know, according to this guy, he has loved many many women throughout his lifetime. I believe he was infatuated and lustful after these women and confused "lust" with "love." I don't believe he honestly knew what that meant or what it should resemble, at least not according to my defintion! 

My mistake was to think people can change. 
None of us change, not least of which a man who's already lived out most of his life. 
I entered his life at a time when he'd decided to stop having fun and settle down, 
because the anxiety of his encroaching death had begun to creep over him. 
I was the little flower who was going to take the reins, 
except that Foulane was the one who took my youth and innocence.
We were not made to be together. That was my mistake, our mistake. (276)
There may be some truth to that the artist (Foulane as Amina calls him, meaning, any man/anyone.) was 14 years older than her and they married when she was only 24 years old and he was 38 years old. And he admitted he had thought it was time he "settled down." Though he never truly remained faithful in the relationship, so I'm uncertain what he meant by "settling down." Sheesh! 

I use all these quotes to prove that we never learn who to believe between these two. Also, there are multiple references to the belief that "love" is due to "fate" and totally outside of any one person's control. I don't know that I believe that, but I do believe that the definition of "love" with regard to marriage or a long-term committed relationship can change throughout adulthood. Obviously these two people came from quite disparate backgrounds which were seemingly incompatible, particularly with regard to their specific families who seem determined not to get along. In addition, there was quite an age difference--she was only 24 and he was 38 when they married. They could have been at very different stages of adulthood/development with that much difference. And...something that is never mentioned beyond once or twice, they had only known each other ONE MONTH before marrying! Yikes!! There was some truth to each of their complaints about the other. I do believe she was correct when she stated he had decided to "settle down" with her, however, he still maintained affairs with other women, so he obviously intended to 'have fun,' just not with her!! It is true that there are different stressors in relationships between partners/spouses once children are born and must be cared for and nurtured. It is not unheard of for partners to become jealous and feel 'left out' when the children seem to consume all the time and energy of their partner. But these two never attempted to communicate, in my opinion. At least it seemed as if there was no attempt made on either of their parts to truly work together once they were parents. 

What does all this say about the artist's wife? 

I believe she stayed in this relationship WAY too long and allowed it to "poison" her, exactly as she states near the end of the book. Yet then she decides at the end to play the role of the "perfect wife" to her husband. I'm sitting in my chair at that point yelling, 
"W-w-h-h-a-a-t-t?!?" I do believe each of them was at fault for the failure of their marriage, though to be fair, if your partner goes from one affair to another on a constant basis, how can you realistically make a marriage work? (At least by my definition.) But I also believe neither of them had the common sense or tools to try to work on it and make it work. Amina was quite the sneak and manipulator. She believed that there should no longer be 'two' people once a couple is married, but that they should meld into one entity. This is at best extremely unrealistic, and at most, damaging in and of itself, in my opinion. Each person must be able to maintain their individuality and yet they must be able to cooperate and get along as a couple. I kept going back to Imane's story of the wife swallowing her husband and could easily imagine Amina feeling as if she could or even should do exactly that. I believe she was evil or possessed in the end after 14 years of marriage to the artist. But I truly don't know. This book seemed nonsensical to me overall. 

In the end, this book was more absurd than anything. 
Honestly, I had much the same feeling upon reading this as I had 
after reading The Stranger by Albert Camus.  

I would love to know what Mr. Jelloun thought a reader should "get" from this book.
Obviously, I didn't "get" much. 
And honestly, I wish I had the time back that I spent reading it.
I truly hope others have a much more positive reaction 
since I do hope every author can succeed.
 I feel as if my review is just as jumbled as this book made me feel in the end. :)
Are you confused yet? 

Join us on June 6th 
when we review 
The Disobedient Wife 
by Annika Milisic-Stanley


  1. Well, I for one am glad that you managed to read the book so that I could read this very entertaining review. Your rebuttals to all the quotes made me laugh out loud!
    I agree that parts of the book seemed absurd, or that I couldn't figure out why they were included. I also felt at times like I had to make myself keep going, but then I would get interested in it for a while. I wasn't confused while reading the book, but became confused when I was trying to figure out how to answer our question. :)
    I had the same reaction at the end when, after all that, she decided she was going to stay with him and be the perfect wife. I was really doubting her stability at that point!

    1. Good, Naomi! At least there was one positive result to my having read this--I was able to entertain you! :) I'll settle for that. I don't believe either of them had much sense. If we'd had a clue what to believe, it might be that she was unstable. Though staying married to him might make you that way! :)

  2. "I found it disingenuous at best for him to proclaim that he truly and genuinely loved any of these women." YES. I totally agree. Ugh—he was just gross. That's all I have to say about that.

    And THANK YOU for linking to those reviews. I hadn't thought to look up other reviews, but they really do help to understand the broader context. And I like that you focused more on the parts about his illness and disability. Honestly, I kind of brushed over those sections because I was trying to get to the stuff about their marriage.

    Great review, Lynn!

    1. I don't know if it's 'great' or not, but it was what I could manage. I don't think it would have even helped if I'd read it early enough to allow myself weeks to digest it. It just didn't work for me. I have great hopes for the next one! :) Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Yay! Someone else finally hated one of our books! That was very interesting information you provided about the law, Lynn, and the rest of your review is really funny. I feel sorry, though, that you had to read the book, you hated it so much.

    1. Oh, really, it's okay. Very rarely do I truly not enjoy much of anything about a book I read, so it's probably a good thing to have that experience every once in awhile. Actually I sometimes feel as if I like or love way too many of the books I read! It has been very interesting to see how much discussion it has provoked among us! So if that is his intent, it worked!! 😀 I'm convinced all experiences are "good" in some way... 😃

  4. I love the update you shared! I think that is what I was feeling when reading it. It was meant to be critical and satirical, that's why the man is the unreliable narrator and why he gets so much of the book to explain himself. It doesn't make the book enjoyable, for his voice is hard to read, but I am glad to hear that my instinct about the purpose and meaning of the book was sort of matching up with what you learned.

    1. Same here, Emily! I think I didn't go with my initial instinct of the allegory with Islam, simply because I am a bit put off by all the discriminatory talk/attitudes/opinions (at least among many people in my daily life) about Islam and Muslims. I keep trying to remind people there are ALWAYS extremists within any group, some are just more pronounced and volatile than others. Anyway, I didn't want to come off as criticizing Islam if that was far removed from his intent! And you know, I always battle with my own prejudices regarding organized religion, so I try to be careful and discount those reactions to a great degree. :) (Remember, I had a tough time with that with The Bishop's Wife...)

  5. Oh my gosh, you covered so many of the aspects of this novel and as you ended up not liking it I really appreciate your patience and fortitude! It does not sound like something I'll add to my TBR.

    1. I had replied, but I guess it didn't take! Actually, I think this was more a result of ruminating to try to figure it out, rather than a result of "patience and fortitude! 😀 It just didn't work well for me...

  6. I am going to come back to your review soon because I am currently reading this one. It's going a little slow though but I hope to finish it this week.

    1. I will be anxious to see what you think of it, Athira! You brave woman, you!!