The re­al­ity of a long mar­riage

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Ad­di­son Jones Sand­stone Press, £8.99 Re­view by Rus­sell Lead­bet­ter

THE open­ing two chap­ters of this novel are a star­tling com­pres­sion of the life­long con­nec­tion be­tween a cou­ple. The first is set in San Fran­cisco in Fe­bru­ary 1950. Bil­lie is an ide­al­is­tic young typ­ist in the copy­writ­ing depart­ment of a petroleum prod­ucts com­pany, who wants noth­ing more than to be mar­ried with a child, and has al­ready de­cided that mak­ing some man happy will be her vo­ca­tion. She is in­tro­duced to the new­est em­ployee Jacko, a re­li­ably cock­sure type, a cou­ple of years her se­nior. The en­counter, de­cid­edly cool at first, blos­soms quickly into a first date, then to mar­riage, in 1952.

The sec­ond chap­ter, set in July 2014, sees the cou­ple – now Milly and Jack – in their un­ap­petis­ing dotage. Milly has in­con­ti­nence aids pro­trud­ing from her. Jack, who has suf­fered a stroke, needs pills for var­i­ous ail­ments. He can feel the vi­bra­tions of Milly’s clank­ing me­chan­i­cal progress down the hall. They snipe tersely at each other.

The rest of this in­trigu­ing, thought­pro­vok­ing novel goes back in time – seven years, three years, two years – all the way to that very first en­counter at the dawn of the fifties. Milly and Jack grow younger with each jump-cut. Their fam­ily – their own chil­dren, plus the two boys of Milly’s care­free sis­ter, who move in with them – fea­ture more and more. We go deeper into Jack’s and Milly’s char­ac­ters, into the ties that bind and the petty mu­tual an­tag­o­nisms that chafe at them.

What also be­comes ev­i­dent are the fault­lines in the mar­riage – any mar­riage, when it comes to that. How do you make love last, Jones asks in an af­ter­word, even when it feels like ha­tred?

Jack – Jacko – is unashamedly self­cen­tred, and he has put Milly through the mill. There is a child by an­other woman, for a start. He gen­uinely can­not see what his wife does all day, merely run­ning the house. He con­trols the house­hold bud­get with what might be termed an in­flex­i­ble at­ti­tude, as he is the sole wage-earner. He is scorn­ful of his wife’s lack of in­ter­est in things and, much more dam­ag­ingly, is cal­lous when she at­tempts to deal with a pri­vate tragedy.

And when his and Milly’s first grand­child is born, while Milly feels in­stinc­tively that this was why she got mar­ried and had chil­dren, Jack doesn’t give the new ar­rival a sec­ond’s thought, pre­fer­ring to chan­nel his emo­tional en­er­gies into try­ing to sign up a young Asian les­bian nov­el­ist for his pub­lish­ing im­print.

How­ever, we also glimpse, here and there, the other side of Jack: his time as a pub­lisher, his love of read­ing, his dreams of writ­ing a great novel.

In time we also learn the calami­tous rea­son for Milly’s in­fir­mity. Gen­er­ally, Milly is a like­able, dreamy soul who, at one point in late 1963, when she was still known as Bil­lie, and was at­tracted by the al­lure of Jackie Kennedy in the White House, com­piles a list of the things they have in com­mon. “Names – 2 syl­la­bles”, she writes. “Both names end in eee sound. Billeee. Jac­k­eee.” She muses that both she and Jackie are mar­ried to charis­matic, pow­er­ful men.

Jones (the pseu­do­nym of Cyn­thia Roger­son), who her­self grew up in Cal­i­for­nia, does a skil­ful job in ne­go­ti­at­ing the plot in re­verse, build­ing up a de­tailed pic­ture of a mar­riage, track­ing it right back to their hon­ey­moon, all against a shift­ing back­drop of Amer­i­can cul­ture and re­cent his­tory. Jack caus­ti­cally ob­serves in 1982, for in­stance, that the Repub­li­cans are back in con­trol again, via “that greasy Rea­gan and that racist Bush.”

This is a frank, earthy and oc­ca­sion­ally drily amus­ing por­trait of a mar­riage, from the be­calmed mid­dleaged years to that poignant stage in later life when the kids are like strangers to their par­ents and it’s just the pair of them at home, at the mercy of their phys­i­cal ail­ments, with­hold­ing plea­sure from each other (as Jones writes) for as long as pos­si­ble, al­most as a mat­ter of course.

Jack is 80 years old when he re­flects sourly that he is “trapped in a house with a crip­pled wife who of­ten made him feel cranky, sulky and sneaky”. Seven years later, how­ever, while ac­knowl­edg­ing that he had been in a bad mood for so long that he could not re­mem­ber not want­ing to stran­gle his wife, he still loved her, dam­mit.

So love can sur­vive, then. But the over­ar­ch­ing theme of Wait for Me, Jack is il­lus­tra­tive of the es­sen­tial truth of the epi­graph used here, voiced by Dr Marie Stopes as long ago as 1918: ‘It is never easy to make mar­riage a lovely thing’.

The over­ar­ch­ing theme of Wait for Me, Jack is il­lus­tra­tive of the es­sen­tial truth of the epi­graph, voiced by Dr Marie Stopes as long ago as 1918: ‘It is never easy to make mar­riage a lovely thing’.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.