Struggling Marriages

“To her husband she was understanding, even affectionate, though they slept as if there were an agreement between them; not so much as a foot ever touched. There was an agreement, it was marriage.”

-James Salter, Light Years

I read Light Years by James Salter and Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue for my writing course. (I’ve already returned Light Years to the library, so only Behold the Dreamers is pictured.) These are, on paper, very different novels. Light Years is about an upper-class Jewish-American family in the 1950s and 1960s, and Behold the Dreamers is about a family from Cameroon who emigrate to New York in the years before the 2008 crash. Both novels are about marriage, though, and offer great insight into the ways in which tensions rise, and are aggravated or appeased, between two people.

Light Years might be one of the most technically perfect books that I’ve ever read. Salter moves across decades and between characters, his dialogue is clear and sparse, his sentences are complex and understandable. I’ve never been so jealous of someone’s pacing. This book is clearly written by someone who knew how to create a novel. I’d recommend it just for that, for anyone interested in the craft of writing, but it’s also a moving look at ageing and growing apart from people. The couple at the center of Light Years, Nedra and Viri, do not stay together; they both have affairs during the marriage, and they divorce amicably, almost expectantly. Salter writes really entertaining summations of characters in a sentence or two. This one is about Nedra: “She used the figure forty, in truth she was forty-one. She was miserable. She was content. She would do her yoga, read, calm herself as one calms a cat.” This one is about Viri’s second wife: “She had a small car, many pairs of shoes, she said wistfully, some money in Switzerland; she was like a meal all prepared.” Light Years has some quite funny passages about dinner parties, as well. He writes fantastic dialogue, and I could picture all of his scenes very clearly. As the novel progresses and the characters age, there are fewer funny scenes are more passages about death, and while this was sad, it also felt very real. I recommend this to anyone who wants to read a well-written story about family, marriage, and ageing.

In Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue, the husband Jende works as a chauffeur for a high-up banker at Lehman Brothers, and his wife Neni is a pharmacology student who ends up working as a temporary housekeeper for the banker’s wife. It shows that the immigrant experience in New York City in the 2010s is intense, sometimes unrewarding. Jende and Neni depend on a (frankly, highly suspicious) immigration lawyer’s plan to grant Jende asylum to remain in the country, and their anxiety about deportation affects their marriage and their careers. Mbue has created very vivid characters. I felt like I knew Jende and Neni well by the end of the novel, and I understood why both of them make potentially poor choices. Mbue also writes chapters from the point of view of the Edwards’, the couple whom Jende and Neni work for, and I was less convinced by those. It felt a little like the chapters near the end of The Female Persuasion; they were well written, but they weren’t about the characters I had invested in. The only thing I didn’t like about the book was the way the 2008 crash was handled. Mbue’s narration of it involved a lot of stressed conversations that Jende overhears while driving Clark around, and since I knew what would happen, I didn’t find it as suspenseful as I felt I should have. This is a great story about immigration in twenty-first century America, though, and I recommend it to anyone interested in that or in stories about POC in America in general. The central question is about what you’re willing to sacrifice to say you live in America, and I loved how Mbue resolved the story.

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