Lily Tuck’s I Married You for Happiness, opens beside the marital bed, where Nina sits observing the body of her husband, Philip, who has died unexpectedly. The evening began as any other: Philip arrived home from the university where he taught mathematics and kissed Nina hello, but then decided to take a nap before dinner. Nina prepared the chicken, the salad, the potatoes. She opened the wine, then called Philip. When he did not respond, she climbed upstairs to find him dead in their bed.
Dinner abandoned, she spends the night recalling their life together, from the earliest days of their courtship to the present moment. The realities and demands of death are temporarily placed on hold as night settles around the couple.
It’s tempting to equate Tuck’s elegant, compact novel to The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s non-fiction account of husband John Gregory Dunne’s sudden death from cardiac arrest. The books share the subject widowhood and fine writing, yes, but whoever said all happy marriages are alike was mistaken. Every marriage is as idiosyncratic as its participants. Philip and Nina’s marriage was good enough to carry them through 43 years, only to leave Nina bereft and wondering, disjointedly, who will repair the wind-whipped shutter banging against the house or care for the enormous vegetable garden Philip cherished.
In life Philip was often egotistical, demanding, sloppy. He tossed his clothing on the floor, ignored Nina at faculty dinners, and condescendingly tolerated her painting. But Nina was no martyred academic wife. She has secrets of her own: an affair, the abortion of a child who was not Philip’s. During the year the couple lived in Berkeley, Nina spent afternoons smoking pot and popping Amyl Nitrate with the mother of one of her daughter’s classmates.
Tuck is an elegant, spare writer who limns her characters in a few swift sentences. When the marriage falters, Nina visits a therapist:
“Dr. Mayer specializes in sex therapy. The walls of her office are covered with drawings of naked men and women coupling. She asks Nina a lot of intimate and embarrassing questions to which Nina replies with lies.”
Nina frets over daughter Louise, who works in San Francisco and has invested in an expensive condominium:
Tall, thin, athletic, lovely Louise.
As a teenager she is too thin. Skinny.
...What if she becomes anorexic?
Lulu is too competitive to starve herself.”
A good deal of mathematical probability enters Nina’s vigil. Largely described from Philip’s viewpoint, often as he lectures his students, Tuck presents classical probability: Schrödinger’s cat, the misplaced assumption (a masked man is seen exiting a jewelry store via a broken window, bag in hand. He is not a thief, but the store owner), mnemonics for memorizing (and boastfully reciting) Pi’s endless digits. Epistemic probability, or probability based on intuition: chances are I did not leave the oven on before leaving the house. Nina has a recurring nightmare of the infinite: we are to understand that numbers count in all directions, including into nothingness. Here is Philip, lecturing:
“I strongly suggest you stay vigilant. Probabilities can be very misleading. You must try to expect the unexpected. The event no one predicted—an epidemic, a tsunami—the event that will make an enormous difference.”
In the acknowledgments Tuck cites numerous mathematical treatises and websites. Her ability to work mathematical concepts into a literary novel is impressive, as is the way numbers are pitted against life’s grayer areas, which defy quantifying. Philip is impatient with Nina’s inability to grasp his explications of probability, though she does understand numbers act as a measuring tool: a life may be counted in years, months, days. A widow may count forward from the death of her husband: the first night alone, gradually lightening into the first dawn alone.
Philip and Nina are well-off, vacationing in France and on French-speaking islands. Philip indulges his fondness for sailing while Nina shops and sightsees. She is a detached observer of others, an educated woman who has done comparatively little with her talents. Nina has devoted little thought to living alone. Despite the many irritations of marriage, both large and small, marriage to Philip brought Nina happiness. She hasn’t the remotest notion of what she’ll do next.
Hopefully I Married You for Happiness will quell any naysayers who remain indignant over Tuck’s National Book Award for 2004’s The News from Paraguay. Tuck was a relative unknown at the time, and even now she’s something of a writer’s writer, deserving of a broader audience.
For the unmarried, I Married You for Happiness will do what great fiction does: draw you into another’s life, allowing you to inhabit it vicariously, emerging with a increased understanding of something previously unknown. If you are happily married, your worst fears about your spouse predeceasing you will be miserably, brightly illuminated, the better you may see them in the harshly brilliant light of quality fiction.