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Book Review

A Lopsided Account of One Couple's Split-Up

FALLING The Story of One Marriage; by John Taylor; Random House $24.95, 224 pages

May 18, 1999|JOYCE MAYNARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Near the final pages of John Taylor's "Falling"--when not only his marriage has unraveled, but so too, it appears, has the couple's resolve to remain friendly and avoid disputes about custody or money--he asks his soon-to-be former wife in a mediation session how she expects him to come up with the money she's demanding from him.

"Write a book," she tells him. So he did. The result is this thoughtful, ambivalent and melancholy memoir, subtitled "The Story of One Marriage." More accurately, it is the story of a divorce.

Reading Taylor's account of this session and his wife's challenge to him, a reader may get the uneasy feeling that he's attempting to justify having written a book that is, after all, one person's side of a story that surely had another. In fact, a version of this story appeared in Esquire, in which both sides of the story were told in side-by-side articles written by Taylor and his ex-wife, Maureen. This time around, the reader is asked to trust the narrative of Taylor alone.

To a point, one does. The story that emerges here would appear to have no villain and no victim. Although it is Maureen who ultimately requests the separation that brings about the end of the couple's 12-year marriage, he appears clear and forthcoming about his substantial contribution to the breakdown of the marriage.

The real life-altering event contained within the story of Taylor's marriage--though he himself never fully presents it as such--is Maureen's diagnosis at age 34, less than a year after the wedding, of Parkinson's disease. While he acknowledges a sense of shock and disbelief, he goes on to spend as much time and space discussing the question of finding a good apartment in New York as he does on the effect, on his marriage, of the knowledge that his wife suffers from an incurable disease.

The couple decides to have a child before her condition worsens, and Taylor's account of their early days as young parents in Brooklyn has a poignant sweetness. There is also, though, a certain sense of unreality in lines like "those were the best of times"--not so much because of what ultimately happened to their marriage, but because they took place even as Maureen was experiencing her first small but increasingly apparent tremors.

"Something went wrong with our marriage during those crucial first two years after our daughter was born," Taylor writes. He offers a couple of theories why. "Maureen never quite reconciled herself to Brooklyn," he says. Though she had chosen to stay home with their daughter, she is left isolated and resentful. Though Taylor reports his wife's indignation at his going out for a jog, after work, as evidence of a certain irrationality on Maureen's part, he manages to convey a deeper, darker truth about the breakdown of his marriage than that his wife simply didn't like the borough they were living in. His inability to recognize the loneliness and isolation of full-time at-home parenthood served, for this reader, as an indication of a larger inability to empathize, or know her, with the same eagerness he seeks to know himself.

*

The focus of the book shifts, increasingly, from Maureen (or even the couple's child) to a series of women with whom Taylor engages in affairs (about whom he writes with no greater tenderness or passion than he does about Maureen).

The couple moves in and out of therapy. At one point, Taylor and his wife separate, but he misses the life of the home and family so sorely that he moves back in. Seemingly in an attempt to make sense of it all, Taylor continues to explore, with admirable seriousness, the concepts of love, duty, fidelity and commitment. His story includes the element--rare in a memoir--of a certain scholarship and intellectual curiosity that may even be a more comfortable form of analysis for the author than any sort of emotional excavation. The philosophy Taylor appears to embrace most consistently throughout his marriage is that of sacrificing his own happiness to fulfill his responsibilities. When he leaves a lover, for instance, he does so with an attitude of faintly self-congratulatory moral rectitude.

"The freedom to luxuriate in self-pity is one of the consolations of a marriage gone wrong," Taylor writes. To his credit, he acknowledges his own substantial failings as he goes about the business of self-denial. Yet, in the end it is not Taylor who calls it quits on the marriage, but his wife. In the final chapters of "Falling," he gives a painfully well-rendered account of his daughter's experience of the breakup, but more space to an accounting thorough enough to hold up in court of his financial settlement with Maureen.

*

It may be inevitable that when one member of a couple tells the story, the reader feels the deck has been stacked. Certainly, there are moments in "Falling" when I felt that way. Taylor is a man for whom "the moment of departure, the moment when you consign some part of your life to the past" represents "a moment of promise." He may love missing marriage more than he loved marriage. He may even miss Maureen. But it is hard to know whether he ever truly knew her in the first place. She is the telling absence in these pages, and if John Taylor doesn't seem to miss her, I did.

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