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Marriage's miseries

The Furies, A Novel; Fernanda Eberstadt; Alfred A. Knopf: 452 pp., $26

September 21, 2003|Bernadette Murphy | Bernadette Murphy is a frequent contributor to Book Review.

The flinty topography of contemporary marriage is the terrain mapped by Fernanda Eberstadt ("When the Sons of Heaven Meet the Daughters of the Earth") in her newest novel, "The Furies," a cautionary tale for those who would live in wedded bliss. Reminiscent of classical mythology in the author's use of archetypal themes, the narrative is also up to the minute in its exploration of the difficulties plaguing modern marriage.

Gwen Lewis, 30, is content to live alone in the luxurious apartment she owns on Manhattan's Upper West Side. She has a passion for all things Russian and is able to freely indulge that passion in her role as a principal for the Lavrinsky Institute, a New York-based establishment that helps the former Soviet Union transform itself into capitalist democracies -- a career that provides great intellectual and psychic satisfaction. Gwen spends her money when and however she likes (shoes, clothes, trips), dates a banker, jets off to Russia regularly and treks around her favorite country unencumbered. She has contemplated the life her friends are living -- domestic ease with partners and children -- and decided she's just as happy to be single and free. Until she meets Gideon Wolkowitz. Handsome in a shaggy-mutt sort of way, he's a destitute puppeteer, taking his socially conscious productions to the streets of New York, around the country and even to the byways of Novosibirsk, a Russian frontier town where the two fated lovers meet. Gwen and Gideon are separated by class, religion, worldview, interests, education -- just about everything. Gideon's puppet company makes its home on New York's Lower East Side. Deserted as a child by his father, he has spent his life looking for the familial connection that will heal him. Gwen is the daughter of moneyed, divorced and emotionally distant parents. She's the prototypical WASP, overeducated and out of sync with Gideon's socialist bent. Gideon is Jewish and relishes his religious ancestry; Gwen is staunchly secular. Yet when they're together, none of this matters.

They create the union of a lifetime, an intimacy they had both abandoned hopes of finding. In classical mythology, the Furies were hideous female monsters who relentlessly pursued evildoers, but in Eberstadt's tale it's the lovers' self-interest and willfulness, inflamed by their disparate backgrounds, that bedevil them. Their tragic flaws, invisible to each, impel them to ever greater levels of self- (and other-) destruction. No sooner is their nest established than the myth of "love will conquer all" is exploded. They are jolted back to the world of mortals when Gwen becomes pregnant. They decide to marry. Here the arc of tragedy begins, as the numerous factors that might have separated them from the start become all too evident. Like the puppets Gideon manipulates, the pair's lives seem to be controlled by unseen forces. Readers, however -- as was true for the audience in Greek tragedy -- are able to identify the destructive dynamics at work. Family patterns play a role; ways of experiencing and interacting with the world have been passed on to Gwen and Gideon as a kind of tainted inheritance. Yet ultimately it is the couple's powerlessness to see beyond their individual needs -- their inability to move from a consideration of what's "mine" and "yours" to an understanding of what's "ours" -- that hamstrings their union.

Eberstadt's writing is up to the epic task she sets herself. Her descriptions of new parenthood are incisive, capturing both the awe and the exhaustion an infant brings, along with the wedge it can interpose in even the closest relationship. Though their romance is not as Olympian for readers as it is for the lovers, the couple's dissolution is devastating. Eberstadt limns crisply, achingly, the slow erosion of their marriage, the little sharp-tongued comments that build until the "result is a bloodless scoreboarding: does she get along with your friends, how good's the sex, does he talk about his feelings. Sexuality being something that's not in every glance, every smile ... every FIGHT, but another multilateral treaty -- I'll [have sex] if you do the dishes -- another improving activity, another thing to 'work on.' "

In myth, there are hideous creatures to slay. In Eberstadt's novel, the creatures are within us. We carry the germ of our own ruin -- and the ruin of the person we love. We must not provoke these creatures, her tale reminds us, for they wreak immense damage. "[W]hen you've broken a horse, you've got a ride, but break your lover, and all that's left is your own arid will, a bed turned to rocky soil that will never take the plough." As tragic as any classic myth, and haunting in its brutality, this is an intelligent if disheartening look into the forces at work inside marriage.

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