What it re­ally means to have and to hold

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY LISA ZEIDNER Lisa Zeidner is the author of five nov­els, most re­cently “Love Bomb.” She teaches at Rut­gers Univer­sity in Cam­den, N.J.

It’s peak wedding sea­son, and Ada Cal­houn’s “Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give” is a fine gift to tuck be­tween the neg­ligees and garter belts at the more lit­er­ary bride’s shower. A breezy, warm-hearted med­i­ta­tion on the na­ture of mat­ri­mony, the book be­gan as a “Mod­ern Love” col­umn in the New York Times. Like many of the es­says that ap­pear there, the chap­ters, with ti­tles such as “The Bor­ing Parts” and “The Truth About Soul Mates,” are de­signed to en­cour­age read­ers’ ru­mi­na­tions about their own tri­umphs and hard­ships in love.

Cal­houn, a jour­nal­ist, has rich au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal ma­te­rial: She’s been mar­ried for 12 years to her cur­rent hus­band, has a youth­ful short-lived mar­riage be­hind her, and is mother to one son and a step­son. She uses confessions about her teenage crushes and near-in­fi­deli­ties as a spring­board for gen­er­al­iza­tions about wed­ded tri­als or bliss. The book ends with a long bib­li­og­ra­phy and is pep­pered with quotes from other writ­ers — Thomas More, James Bald­win, Pope Fran­cis, “mod­ern re­la­tion­ship sage Tyler Perry” and Cal­houn’s mother, who de­liv­ers per­haps the most pithy ad­vice on the best way to stay mar­ried: “You don’t get di­vorced.”

Cal­houn’s mar­riage, to the oft-ad­mir­ingly-quoted mu­si­cian Neal, ap­pears to be a solid one, with plenty of re­spect, hon­esty and in­jokes. Her wry, lik­able voice is at its Ephronesque best in th­ese pas­sages, which cel­e­brate the joys of the daily. On the frus­trat­ing rep­e­ti­tions of rear­ing a tod­dler: “With ‘Dora the Ex­plorer’ on, no one can hear you scream.” On spats dur­ing home ren­o­va­tion projects: “Be­cause I like to fix bro­ken things quickly and as shod­dily as pos­si­ble (Neal de­scribes my ren­o­va­tion aes­thetic as ‘Lit­tle Ras­cals Club­house’), I fre­quently re­ceive the ad­vice ‘Don’t just do some­thing, stand there.’ ” Only oc­ca­sion­ally do her glow­ing re­ports veer into the ter­ri­tory of the hum­ble-brag or gloat. “Neal de­nies me noth­ing. He is great in bed and would just as soon we had sex ev­ery day.”

Read­ers look­ing for fresh wis­dom may be unim­pressed to hear that mar­riage isn’t al­ways thrilling, that it re­quires com­pro­mise or that “the ro­man­tic fairy tales we grew up with . . . are not use­ful for grown-ups.” The book is sur­pris­ingly short on in­sights from psy­chol­o­gists or cou­ples coun­selors on com­mon mar­i­tal prob­lems, or on how past fam­ily dy­nam­ics, end­lessly re­played, can doom a mar­riage. There are few in­ter­ac­tions — much less hos­til­ity — with par­ents or in-laws; there are no nasty ex-wives or cus­tody bat­tles; no drunks or swindlers or wife-beaters. In­deed, the ba­sic tenor of the book is Nice — the kind of things you would ac­tu­ally want to voice in a wedding toast.

If I may add two fa­vorite works to Cal­houn’s

“Mar­riage might just in­volve find­ing and re­find­ing our own bal­ance be­tween bore­dom and jeal­ousy, safety and dan­ger.” Ada Cal­houn

bib­li­og­ra­phy, I rec­om­mend Bri­tish psy­chi­a­trist Adam Phillips’s “Monogamy” (in short: it’s frus­trat­ing) and Mag­gie Scarf ’s “In­ti­mate Part­ners: Pat­terns in Love and Mar­riage” (in short: it’s com­pli­cated). Th­ese are both deeper, darker works. But you can’t re­ally fault Cal­houn for hav­ing mar­ried well or for be­ing stal­wartly good-na­tured. She of­ten ad­vo­cates a kind of cheer­ful mod­er­a­tion:

“I’ve no­ticed that Neal and I need some dis­tance to feel at­trac­tion. If we’re too con­nected, there’s no space to bridge with de­sire. If we’re too far apart, we be­come es­tranged. I’ve be­gun to sus­pect that, re­gard­less of what women’s mag­a­zines tell us, there might be no way to reach peak sex­i­ness and per­fect se­cu­rity si­mul­ta­ne­ously, that mar­riage might just in­volve find­ing and re­find­ing our own bal­ance be­tween bore­dom and jeal­ousy, safety and dan­ger.”

A chap­ter called “Love Is Strong as Death” con­tains most of the re­ports from longer-term mar­riages and older cou­ples, with many part­ners con­fess­ing that they of­ten con­sid­ered bolt­ing. In fact, one thing that “Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give” re­minds us is that Cal­houn’s co­or­di­nates on the mar­i­tal time­line may rep­re­sent a golden mo­ment. At 12 years, you’re past the seven-year itch. If you’ve had kids, you’ve weath­ered the most chal­leng­ing early child-rear­ing patch but haven’t yet ap­proached the next rough child-rear­ing patch, ado­les­cence. (The step­son doesn’t get a lot of air­time.)

Cal­houn is, in short, the ideal per­son to de­liver a cham­pagne toast be­fore the danc­ing be­gins: a lit­tle older, a lit­tle wiser, but not so old and wise that she has lost her ef­fer­ves­cent hope­ful­ness. More jaunty than jaded, she’s still a firm be­liever in “mo­ments of grace” that trans­form an or­di­nary mar­riage into some­thing con­se­crated. “Th­ese mo­ments are like shoot­ing stars: you see them only if you’re watch­ing, and you see them more clearly when it’s dark.”

By Ada Cal­houn W.W. Nor­ton and Co. 192 pp. $24.95

WEDDING TOASTS I’LL NEVER GIVE

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