Louis Begley, author of “About Schmidt,” has an unerring eye and finely tuned ear for the particular nuances of the elite. In “Memories of a Marriage” he paints an unvarnished portrait of a marriage that was, by all accounts, irrevocably doomed.
Philip, a novelist, narrates this tale. In his late 60s or early 70s, he is a widower who lives on his memories:
Dante’s Virgil was wrong to tell him that there is no greater sorrow than to remember past happy times when one is in misery. Memory is a solace. Perhaps the only one. Memory is also the best of companions.
Philip encounters Lucy de Bourgh Snow, an old acquaintance who insists on reconnecting, at the ballet. Philip remembers her as a good-time girl with a generous trust fund who had married Thomas Snow, the son of a Newport, RI garage owner and his bookkeeper wife – a townie. Philip recalls how he had long ago misjudged the situation:
I liked him instinctively, and I liked the conceit I’d come up with, that in fine, . . . all three of us, Lucy, Thomas and I, belonged to the same world, undifferentiated by class, the grand world to which presidents of Harvard University traditionally welcomed at commencements graduating Harvard College seniors: “the society of educated men and women.”
Noble sentiments, indeed for the class conscious 1950s.
Somewhat reluctantly, Philip begins seeing Lucy, who recalls her marriage to “that monster,” Thomas.
Remember I said in Paris he needed me? Look at me, Philip! He sure did. Only he didn’t need a wife. He needed a live-in whore with a big bank account who’d pay his bills and show him how to live in the great world. Where do you suppose he learned all the moves? From the bookkeeper or the garage owner?
Her bitter recollections don’t jibe with Philip’s memories of Thomas – the Harvard Business School graduate who enjoyed an immense level of success as an investment banker. Lucy’s memories don’t mesh with the fond and loving tributes paid to him by his second wife, and widow, Jane.
Philip’s novelistic instincts take over, as he becomes determined to learn what happened to derail the marriage of two people he had once been so fond of. What he uncovers is a shocking story driven by the willful excesses and appetites of Lucy – a story that probes the hidden heart of a marriage. Adultery and condescension pale in the end, for as one character tells Philip:
. . . fundamentally she didn’t like him. That’s a problem that can’t be fixed. Without simple affection, not sex but affection, a marriage can’t work.
“Memories of a Marriage” works on all levels. Begley has written a slyly compelling, unerringly precise account of a marriage that belied its surface charms. Brimming with knowing observations of WASP-ish society – from private clubs to the ballet, this is a book to remember.
“Memories of a Marriage” is available on amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.