Monday, February 14, 2011

Book Review

I've lately made a jump start to my personal reading again. What have I started off with? Committed, by Elizabeth Gilbert.

By the time I was through the first chapter, I thought I would write something like: Excellently written and wonderfully pithy throughout. Perhaps it is her ability to “write like a man” that I find so attractive as prose styles go.

Of course, by chapter 3 and beyond, my response became more nuanced: Perhaps as the recently married child of divorced and re-married (to other people) parents, I have my own presumptions about why it takes Ms. Gilbert so long to figure out that marriage, not only doesn’t, but shouldn’t guarantee happiness without blemish.

If that seems like a radical statement, humour me for a moment. A marriage guarantees nothing: it’s the partner you chose, and the work both of you are willing to put into that relationship that determines conditions in which you can choose to be happy. I think because I think of happiness as a choice, I don’t have the dilemma that my husband’s sole job in life is to make me perfectly, blissfully, insanely happy...all the time. He can do the dishes without me asking, vacuum, put everything away after I've cooked dinner – even cook dinner after getting in from being our home’s sole provider – and give me whatever else I ask for, but I can still be unhappy. I don’t deny that other people’s actions have an effect upon our moods, and by extension our personalities, but I think of Edward Partridge who was tarred and feathered by and angry Missouri mob and yet felt no hatred toward a single man jack of them.

Now, I don’t really see any similarity between my husband and some angry frontiersmen aside from all being men, but I can still be happy if he is distant some nights, or forgets to wash the dishes, or doesn’t realise that he’s doing something particularly annoying. I can be happy because I chose to be. Because I know that he is not his mistakes and shortcomings; he’s not even his strengths and virtues...this is most definitely an instance where I side with the phrase from Gestalt theory which says that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I can be happy because he – and I with him – creates an environment where happiness is a choice that is easier for me to make.

Okay, so to my assertion that marriage shouldn't guarantee happiness: that's too easy. If you never have any challenges, how do you grow together? If you're always happy, you forget what unhappiness is...which makes you appreciate the good times much less. And it creates a false premise. If marriage, full stop, no qualifiers, guarantees happiness, then the claim can be made that whatever relationship problems I have with my significant other will magically disappear once we say "I do" and sign a register.

So to Ms. Gilbert's unrealistic expectations of marriage, I say: grow up. You'll be happier when you do. (To be fair, she very well might "grow up" by the end of the book...)

There are other issues I take with some of her perspectives throughout the book - and I'm still finishing it - but on the whole, I can appreciate her journey to search out the truth that might confirm or debunk her prejudices. It's an interesting and entertainingly written book, and not nearly as girly as I was imagining when I first picked it up (yay!).

So as I keep reading, I'll keep a look-out for other premises that Ms. Gilbert either debunks, proves, or runs amok with. Her views on feminism and marriage might be interesting to tackle.

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