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After Pause, a Couple Reconcile Their Aims

Marriage* In writing of how a year apart from her husband renewed their relationship, Joan Anderson has struck a chord with women.

April 30, 2002|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The last line of Joan Anderson's new book sums it up. She congratulates her husband on their anniversary: "I can't believe it--thirty two years with the same person!" He replies: "That's just it. We're not the same person."

The saga of this couple's marital transformation--which is really the wife's version of what happened--is told in two slim memoirs, the second just published.

"An Unfinished Marriage" (Broadway Books, 2002) picks up where "A Year by the Sea" (Doubleday, 1999) left off.

In that first volume, Anderson described how she ran away from home for a year at 50, when her children were grown, her marriage stale, and her husband announced they were moving to be near a new job he had just taken. He simply assumed she would come along. She wouldn't. Instead, she decided to move to their Cape Cod summer cottage. He could live his new life without her.

Given the 57% divorce rate in the United States, this is probably not an unusual story. And Anderson's privileged escape--to a beautiful spot that they owned free and clear--was an elitist form of conjugal noncompliance. In fact, some thought Anderson's mission to separate herself had the earmarks of a wilted New Age soap opera.

Thirty-seven publishers rejected it. Even Doubleday, which eventually bought the manuscript, showed little enthusiasm for it, she says. "It was a B-list book. No ads or promotions were done for it," and so few copies were printed that it had sold out at bookstores by the time "Oprah" and the "Today" show got wind of the book's word-of-mouth success and invited its author to appear. Even so, the publisher declined to print a paperback version.

Another publisher, Broadway Books, printed 250,000 copies in paperback--all of which sold quickly. It appears that relatively affluent women across the country had been searching for some sort of learning tool through which they, too, could enhance their marriages without resorting to counselors or courts. About 3,000 of the paperbacks "walked off the shelves" at Once Upon a Time, a small independent bookstore in Montrose. Says shop manager Charlotte Hollingsworth: "We got the book in hardcover first, passed it around, and everybody loved it." Readers began considering the possibility of taking time off by themselves, if only for a weekend, to figure out what was right and wrong with their married lives. "I sent the author a note saying how great the book is, and if you ever do a tour, we'd love to meet you." The "we" she refers to are her mostly married, mostly well-educated customers from La Canada, La Crescenta and Montrose--quietly upscale residential enclaves not far from Pasadena and downtown Los Angeles.

When Anderson's second volume, "An Unfinished Marriage," hit stores this month, about 70 of the shop's customers paid $70 each for a seminar, arranged by Hollingsworth (with proceeds to charity), where Anderson signed autographs and shared her wisdom. The youngest in the audience was 26 and not married but determined "to be successful" when she does tie the knot. The oldest, a married woman in her late 70s, said she was there "because it's never too late to learn."

The new book tells how the author and her husband reunited at the Cape Cod house, and restored their relationship in much the same fashion as one might repair a lovely but ravaged antique. Slowly, gently and with care not to chip fragile surfaces, they revived their union to a semblance of what it once had been--with obvious exceptions made for wear, tear and increased age. The author--now a minor celebrity who leads seaside "retreats" for women on Cape Cod--has just been on "Oprah" again and has finished a 10-city book promotion tour.

Why such popularity? It was all so accidental, Anderson said recently while in Los Angeles to promote the book. She never intended to run away from home, certainly not to write about it. She never could have imagined that her private relationship (or lack of it) with her husband of 25 years would resonate with so many women of such diverse ages. In retrospect, she says, she realizes that marriage is a suppressed hot-button issue in America, one that few people are addressing in a constructive way, she says.

She believes it is a particular problem with middle-class women like herself, whose plight is not tragic in any way. "Our life was good. My husband was good--a dutiful, responsible, hard-working person." They'd met at Yale drama school, spent three years in Africa in the Peace Corps together, married there--and then came home to "live the American dream," she says. He was a school administrator. She was a writer of children's books and freelance features who also raised the kids, ran the house and arranged the family's social calendar. "Exactly what most working wives do these days," she says.

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