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Two Marriagesby Phillip Lopate
Synopses & Reviews
Selected as one of Oprah.coms 20 Tantalizing Beach Reads
Celebrated essayist Phillip Lopate proves himself a master of the short novel form in this inspired pairing of novellas portraying two less-than-perfect unions.The Stoic’s Marriage chronicles the life of newlyweds Gordon and Rita. Well-off, idle Gordon, a lifelong student of philosophy who has always had “a stunted capacity for happiness,” first meets the enchanting Rita when she comes to his home as a nurse’s aid sent to care for his dying mother. The attraction is instant and a marriage proposal ensues. Gordon turns to his diary to record his uxoriousness and to expound on the merits of Stoicism, the philosophy he’s adopted as his “substitute religion.” When Rita’s cousin from the Philippines arrives one Christmas, setting in motion an outrageous and hilarious sequence of events, both Gordon’s stoicism and marriage vows are put to the test.
Eleanor, or, The Second Marriage recounts one seemingly golden weekend in the lives of Eleanor and Frank, whose Brooklyn townhouse is a gathering place for their circle of cultured, cosmopolitan friends.It is Saturday morning, and Frank and Eleanor are planning the dinner they will host to celebrate the visit of a famous actor friend. These preparations are interrupted by the arrival of Frank’s son, a young man deeply troubled by his own aimlessness. Other guests arrive, and in the midst of great conviviality, simmering tensions erupt into raucous emotional dramas.
Elegant, concise, and comically devastating, Two Marriages illuminates the ways in which love is inseparable from deceit.
Phillip Lopate is such a smart man and such a fine writer that sometimes it's hard to know whether he's gaming you — having fun with you just because he can. Here are two novellas about marriage: one called "The Stoic's Marriage," the other, "Eleanor, or, The Second Marriage." They're both set in Brooklyn, resolutely set there, as if every person in the whole world should know its every cobblestone... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) and street, so that when the protagonist of "The Stoic's Marriage," for instance, refers to his home in mansionlike terms, we don't know if it really is a mansion, or just the biggest house in a run-down slum. And obviously Lopate doesn't want us to know — but why? And if, after reading these two tales of marriage, you find yourself wanting to run to the nearest monastery, rush inside, lock the door and throw away the key, well, is that the author's intention? Maybe. Maybe not. Lopate tells you everything and nothing at the same time. And perhaps that's what marriage is, what life is. A surfeit of information that, in the end, is inexplicable. In "The Stoic's Marriage," Gordon, a lonely, aging bachelor who has recently moved back in with his mother, has that same perplexing combination of knowledge and ignorance about himself. He describes with disgust his "roly-poly belly and thinning, wiry hair," and also admits to being a "procrastinator, selfish, petulant, introverted, melancholic." But he's proud of his education and aristocratic connections, and he seems to take perverse pride in never having finished his PhD. He thinks lofty thoughts because he's lofty, not because he has to earn a living as an academic. He admires the works of Epictetus and quotes from them in his newly begun diary. Gordon has unexpectedly come into an inheritance of happiness and, in his naivete, thinks he's become an expert on the subject. His crabby old mother has been ill for a long time, and through the hospital Gordon hired Rita, a beautiful woman from the Philippines, to come and look after her. Caring for a tiresome old lady as she lies dying is not a job at the top of the economic food chain, so Rita must surely have her own hard and urgent reasons for being there, but Gordon is either too besotted or too self-absorbed even to consider that she might have a past, a life of her own. Also, he's thinking with the part of his body that is not, to put it delicately, situated above his neck. Rita takes Gordon to bed. She stays on in the house after his mother dies. They marry. He's insanely happy, so full of himself that he thinks this diary he has started might well function as a marriage manual, and for the first few months of their connection his sole worry is whether he should keep this work for himself or submit it to the larger public. What's Rita's story? To anyone who has had occasion to hire a minimum-wage immigrant or tune in to Lou Dobbs when he's feeling testy, it will be obvious. There's something Rita wants and needs, and she wants it a lot. The reader can only watch helplessly as Gordon is taken to the cleaners in every possible way, shape and form. There's nothing to be done. He's a prisoner of his own folly. The only happy ending — if there is one — is that he finally learns what it is to be a real stoic. "Eleanor, or, The Second Marriage" is just as disheartening. Eleanor and Frank, after hardscrabble first marriages, are making enough money now and enjoying enough career success that they feel reasonably confident about embarking on this second attempt at matrimony. But Frank's older son (with whom Frank smokes dope and blabs on at length about his youthful depression) "knew his father had left because his mother had gotten fat." So Frank isn't exactly a man of deeply felt, profound emotion. Be that as it may, and knowing what they do, Frank and Eleanor go through the postures and positions of being a sophisticated New York couple. On a typical weekend, they engage in vigorous sex, go into Manhattan for a charming restaurant meal and on Sunday throw a casual-seeming but opulent dinner party. Eleanor makes Cornish game hens; Frank sets up an actual movie projector so that their guests can watch "City Lights." (No crass DVDs for them.) They talk of the theater. They eat on white sectional couches around a Noguchi table. They are consumers of culture, cognoscenti in the most unpleasant sense. And, as in so many second marriages (and first ones, too, I imagine), the subtext, the real story, centers on who's going to get control of the relationship or, more drearily, who's going to be unfaithful first. In both novellas, Lopate seems to express a down-and-dirty, gut-level contempt for all the things that make up daily life. He seems to exhibit an almost priestly revulsion for the seven deadly sins, particularly lust, covetousness, gluttony and (intellectual) sloth. Or I may be totally wrong. He simply may have gamed me good and proper. Reviewed by Carolyn See, who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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The celebrated essayist proves himself a master of the short novel form in this inspired paring of novellas portraying two less-than-perfect unions.
About the Author
Phillip Lopate is an acclaimed novelist, essayist, critic, poet, and editor. He is the author of Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan (2004), as well as the essay collections Against Joie de Vivre, Bachelorhood, Being with Children, Portrait of My Body, and Totally, Tenderly, Tragically. He is the editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, and the Library of America's Writing New York. Two Marriages is his first book-length fiction since The Rug Merchant (1987). He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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