Amanda Craig picks the best books about modern married life

From The Wife to Gone Girl, the novelist shares her favourite depictions of happy (and unhappy) couples in fiction, plus two insightful true accounts

Ever since Ibsen’s Nora walked out of the “doll’s house”, literature has been questioning marriage and patriarchy. Many of the greatest novels, plays and films we have revolve around the consequences of wives choosing adultery over convention. The price for 19th-century heroines, from Anna Karenina to Emma Bovary, was death: but as feminism spread through the last century, that narrative has changed.

These days, it’s quite likely that the erring husband is the one to be dispatched. Meg Wolitzer’s hugely entertaining The Wife – the film adaptation of which is out this month starring Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce – imagines a marriage in which a dignified middle-aged woman endures a long marriage to a celebrated, shamelessly adulterous novelist. Rejecting pity, she calls herself “a king-maker”: there is much more to this union than first appears. Anyone who knows about Colette’s marriage (also on screen soon with Keira Knightley as the French novelist) may guess what.

Revenge through reinvention … Julie T Wallace in The 1986 film adaptation of The Life and Loves of a She-Devil.
Revenge through reinvention … Julie T Wallace in the 1986 film adaptation of The Life and Loves of a She-Devil. Photograph: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

The marriage of warring writers holds an eternal fascination, as the new edition of Sylvia Plath’s letters shows. But what of ordinary couples? Fiction thrives on conflict, but where novels of the 1960s to early 80s, from Alison Lurie’s The War Between the Tates to Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of a She-Devil posited women’s revenge through self-reinvention, a different kind of heroine is emerging. She sometimes chooses to renegotiate, and possibly to forgive.

One of the best and earliest novels about this is by Elizabeth Jenkins. The Tortoise and the Hare concerns the 1950s marriage between the beautiful but passive Imogen, who realises that her distinguished barrister husband is falling for a neighbour, a woman who is competent, rich and ruthless. The perfection of its tone and prose is matched by an anguished wit.

Equally searing is Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. Its narrator, Olga, has been left by her husband of 15 years; she copes with her own devastation and two young children and a dog in a broiling apartment. Her excoriating humiliations and breakdown ring with truth; the novel promises a glimmer of hope that her life might ultimately be rebuilt.

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl gives two very different accounts of Nick and Amy’s twisted marriage, escalating into a thriller. At its heart is a wife’s Machiavellian revenge for infidelity, but the brilliance of the novel is its author’s perception that “marriage is sort of like a long con, because you put on display your very best self during courtship, yet at the same time the person you marry is supposed to love you, warts and all”.

Rosamunde Pike in the 2014 film adaptation of Gone Girl (2014).
Rosamunde Pike in the 2014 film adaptation of Gone Girl. Photograph: Allstar/New Regency Pictures

Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living is a meditation on the way that a modern marriage still requires a wife to “wear a mask and her face grows to fit it”, especially when children arrive. Her account of her marriage breakdown and determination to be an artist is beautifully defiant and full of acute observation.

And for entertaining insights, Ada Calhoun’s Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give has honest advice about not getting divorced, starting with understanding that “marriage is not a happiness factory”.

• Amanda Craig’s novel The Lie of the Land is published by Abacus.

Contributor

Amanda Craig

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
From sisterly love to frenemies: the best female friendships in books
Whether it is Vera Brittain or Elena Ferrante, women’s relationships have provided succour in troubled times, writes Lucy Jago

Lucy Jago

05, Apr, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
Salley Vickers picks the best books about family dynamics
Struggling to understand your relatives this bank holiday weekend? The novelist picks her favourite books, from Mansfield Park to Cold Comfort Farm

Salley Vickers

27, Aug, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Cows, farmers and murderers: Tim Pears picks the best books on rural life
The breadth of the landscape is examined in interviews, photographs, cartoons and novels

Tim Pears

06, May, 2019 @5:30 AM

Article image
The best books about new beginnings
Uplifting titles from Tara Westover’s memoir Educated to Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City offer escape and inspiration

Jenny Colgan

17, Feb, 2020 @7:02 AM

Article image
Sister act: female friendship in fiction from Woolf to Ferrante and Zadie Smith
Forget wives and mothers, the heroines of new books by Deborah Levy, Emma Cline and Zadie Smith are defined by the other women in their lives

Alex Clark

06, Aug, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
From Ted Hughes to HG Wells: Jeanette Winterson picks the best books about the moon
Fifty years since Apollo 11 landed, the novelist shares her favourite books and poems about Earth’s mysterious satellite

Jeanette Winterson

20, Jul, 2019 @5:01 AM

Article image
Space invaders: the best books about interstellar arrivals
As the comet Borisov speeds across our universe, Alastair Reynolds shares books to expand our frontiers

Alastair Reynolds

07, Dec, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Bee Wilson picks the best books about veganism
From Victorian vegetarians to Gandhi’s homemade bean soup, these books explore the history of veganism long before it was trendy

Bee Wilson

28, Jan, 2019 @6:30 AM

Article image
Panashe Chigumadzi picks the best books about Zimbabwe
Ahead of the country’s general election, the novelist picks books that capture Zimbabwe’s violent history and explore its national identity

Panashe Chigumadzi

29, Jul, 2018 @5:00 PM

Article image
From Jeanette Winterson to John Irving: John Boyne on the best books about LGBT life
As we mark LGBT history month, the novelist selects some classic, personal novels and true accounts of the battle for civil rights

John Boyne

18, Feb, 2019 @6:30 AM