Two New Books Wonder How Much Work a Marriage Should Take

Maybe you've said it, maybe someone has said it to you, maybe you learned it from Friday Night Lights, but most Americans know: Marriage takes work. This belief, that one can improve at personal relationships as if they were fly-fishing, or baking a layer cake, drives Elizabeth Weil's memoir No Cheating, No Dying: I Had a Good Marriage. Then I Tried to Make It Better (Scribner) and Jane McCafferty's novel First You Try Everything (Harper).

Weil's angle is that her marriage doesn't necessarily need work—she's "happy" with her husband, the writer Daniel Duane, despite his compulsive need to butcher whole hogs in their kitchen. Yet she chooses to be more deliberate about her marriage, citing her own tendencies toward self-improvement: "I have never been one to leave well enough alone." As first chronicled in Weil's widely read 2009 New York Times Magazine piece, "Married (Happily) With Issues," the pair spends a year sampling every marriage improvement option the San Francisco Bay area has to offer.

Weil pairs her own adventures in couples counseling with a survey of marriage literature, from Nora Ephron's chatty novels to psychologist Michael Vincent Miller's Intimate Terrorism. And she's not afraid to include the stuff that raises questions about the very sanity of marriage. (The ideal of a monogamous relationship is, according to psychoanalytic thought, "forged in infancy, a child and its mother." Yikes.)

While Weil's research is exhaustive enough to provide any marriage-obsessed reader with a new Amazon wish list, she never lets it swamp her pithy self-examination. "In that moment I realized my favorite books about marriage—Calvin Trillin's About Alice and Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking—both included one spouse who was dead," she writes. She also never forces conclusions about which approach to marriage improvement works best. "Dan and I didn't expect much when we signed up for a sixteen-hour, two-Saturday marriage education class called Mastering the Mysteries of Love. Actually, that's not true: we expected to hate it."

This brand of nonfiction, where the writer makes her own present an experimental subject, made viable by such successes as Julie and Julia, often flirts with insincerity, and when I started No Cheating, No Dying, I was predictably unconvinced. There's something distasteful about Weil's project at first, as if she's spitting in the face of her own happiness. For those of us on the outside of the marriage game—and by all statistical accounts, we're a growing population—the very trouble of what Weil calls a "wholly merged life," the fights about head cheese and condo developments, can seem like a foreign and surprisingly romantic language.

Yet what ultimately makes No Cheating, No Dying such a thrilling read is the way Weil fiercely includes the reader in the secret life of her marriage. Whether this is instructive or not is another question, and I'm sure the answer will vary depending on one's own relationship to marriage, but in any case, reading this book feels like eavesdropping on another life.

Reading McCafferty's First You Try Everything, a novel that chronicles one woman's eccentric attempts to save her marriage, might have offered the same pleasure. This novel concerns Evvie, an animal-rights activist still vigilant about her countercultural beliefs, and Ben, who has moved toward the mainstream in his taste for both clothing and women. While the small dramas of shared life seem fascinating in Weil's hands, the melodramas of a fractured one are not enough to sustain McCafferty's novel. Until the book's action heats up—much too late—Evvie and Ben spend the majority of the pages thinking about their marriage, talking about their marriage, or talking about their marriage to other people on the phone. In this novel, McCafferty does not give her characters distinctive enough voices to pull off so much talk. At one point, Evvie asks, "Did I just get to be too much?" Her husband answers: "It's not you at all. It's me."

Although McCafferty's novel, like the worst kind of therapy, talks in circles about marriage, her prose does offer some insight into the workings of a mind in relationship crises. Although the more sensationalist aspects of Evvie's grief-fueled activities are hard to believe, the smaller things she tries, such as refusing to remember her estranged husband, can quite be quite sad and touching: "It struck her that wanting to remember their life was really wanting to render it history. Something to preserve."

Although I know the way Evvie works on her marriage is outlandish, I've always been unsure what people mean when they say they are "working" on personal relationships. Car engines run on principles of physics, so you fix them according to those principles, but can the same be said about two people?

In No Cheating, No Dying and First You Try Everything, the work of relationships ranges from telling a story in your partner's voice as a practice of empathy to breaking into your estranged husband's home. Weil's self-help methods and Evvie's illegal attempts at reconciliation often feel contrived, but both Weil's marriage and her book seem to work for the same reason: They're both full of an honest and utterly believable version of love. As a reader of Weil's book, if not McCafferty's, you care enough to try everything.