A malcontent in Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” voices a familiar complaint when he confesses, “The more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular.” The speaking man believes himself capable of great humanitarian feats, but he falters when it comes to the prosaic business of enduring other people. “I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days,” he whines. “In twenty-four hours I can begin to hate even the best of men: one because he takes too long eating his dinner from him, another because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose.”
Marriage is a kind of exposure therapy for Dostoyevskian misanthropy, and, according to the author and advice columnist Heather Havrilesky, it works—not because it erases our aversion to human particularity but because it teaches us to love in spite of our inevitable aggravation. “Our culture tends to zoom in on those first locked eyes, that first passionate kiss, and then fade out just as things are starting to get interesting,” she writes in her wise and mordant new memoir, “Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage.” “I say skip over that stuff and show me your first conversation about recurring minor digestive issues, your first long car trip across unremarkable terrain, your first encounter with each other’s least emotionally stable relative.” In other words: show me your ability to withstand a man loudly blowing his nose, not for two days but for the rest of your life.
Havrilesky’s partner and occasional adversary is Bill, a kind and clever professor of education who woos her with witty e-mails. As their relationship develops, Havrilesky finds herself underwhelmed by many of the much-anticipated rites so glorified in romantic lore. When the pair takes a trip to Europe together, they are cranky and jet-lagged; on their wedding day, Havrilesky finds herself stressed and sweaty, worried primarily about whether guests will be able to hear the ceremony if it is conducted without a microphone. “I look like some man’s virginal property acquisition,” she quips when she dons her white gown. Throughout, she remains anxious to retain the streak of intellectualism and independence that the traditional accoutrements of matrimony are designed to expunge. At one point, she wonders, “Why not marry your friends?”
The answer, of course, is that Bill is her friend. He regards her as neither an unfortunate in want of protection nor a subordinate in want of correction, but, simply, as an equal. He loves her de ella sparkling maximalism too much to consign her to dreary domesticity, and the two of them jointly strive to envision a more just partnership. “Unlike the wider world outside our door, Bill likes to hear all of the words that come tumbling out of my face. He doesn’t worry that I might be smarter than him,” Havrilesky writes. “He’d prefer that, actually.” But, even if Bill is never sexist or cruel, Havrilesky finds he can still be quite irritating.
Unlike the many memoirs that double as thinly veiled advertisements for their authors, “Foreverland” ventures occasionally unflattering honesty, not just about Bill but also about its author. Havrilesky is unafraid to admit to nursing unseemly sentiments that most of us would go to great lengths to conceal. When she meets Bill’s son from his first marriage, she is not flooded with maternal tenderness; instead, she succumbs to dread. “Here is a human who will be in my life forever and ever,” she thinks. “It made me feel heavy, like I should try to sneak out the back door and maybe go have a drink somewhere.” Unsure of what to say to each other, she and Bill’s son take to playing game after game of Monopoly, but Havrilesky is so incorrigibly competitive that she devastates the child, defeating him over and over. “Let the kid win, stupid,” she tells herself, yet she cannot bring herself to concede.
A standoff with a nine-year-old over a board game presents one of many opportunities for self-mockery, and Havrilesky avails herself of all of them with aplomb. She has a gift for getting emotional truth by way of comedic exaggeration. “Do I hate my husband? For sure, yes, definitely,” she reports, in a chapter that was adapted into an essay for the New York Times this past winter, much to the chagrin of moralists in the comments section and professional offenses on social media. “You do hope that the editors at the NYT read the submission and said, ‘Yes sure it’ll engage our readers, and we’ll publish it if you really want us to, but you do understand you are filing your divorce papers in front of millions of people, right?’ ” the Atlantic pundit David Frum tweeted, apparently referring to the piece. Tired critiques in this vein were recycled more recently, by sensationalists at the New York post (“Wife calls marriage ‘insane,’ hates her husband”), and by commentators on “The View,” who admitted that they hadn’t read “Foreverland” but still went on to denounce it. “We got snippets of this book,” one of them confessed, before another launched into elaborate speculation about Havrilesky’s frame of mind.
The passage in contention is one in which Havrilesky likes Bill, in his least caffeinated and least dignified state, to “a heap of laundry: smelly, inert, useless, almost sentient but not quite.” He infuriates her by repeating the same story over and over, by clearing her throat loudly and phlegmatically, by snapping her kids at her on vacation. And though he is for the most part a fount of patience and understanding, taking Havrilesky’s many anxious calls without complaint, her demands from her sometimes frustrate him in turn. For much of their marriage—and therefore much of “Foreverland”—Bill and Havrilesky confront each other with a dread that bears a passing resemblance to hatred. Or, as she puts it, “I see Bill with a scorching clarity that pains me. This is why surviving a marriage requires turning down the volume on your spouse so you can barely hear what they’re saying.”
What Havrilesky’s bevy of detractors overlook is the rather manifest fact that she is joking. Readers familiar with her exuberant “Ask Polly” advice column know that she tends toward playful, wordy relentlessness, and in “Foreverland” she relies on the same sort of hyperbole to deflate widespread idealization of the romantic dyad. Her aim de ella is to remind us that a husband is “only human.” “He is not a demigod,” she continues. “He does not have golden sunlight and magic shooting out of his fingertips from him. He cannot banish darkness and bend the laws of time and space.” Lifelong monogamy is not an idyll, nor is it a casual undertaking. It is, in her words, “the world’s most impossible endurance challenge.”
Occasionally, Havrilesky’s maximalist prose can be grating, too. She favors long, unwieldy sentences and cavalcades of metaphors that can be mixed to the point of confusion. “When you have great chemistry with someone, you imagine that you’re both omnipotent, like some powerful force is being channeled through you. Together, you are a tree being struck by lightning. You are an island in a Category 5 hurricane,” she writes, of the heady feeling of falling in love. Or of her newborn daughter de ella: “One minute, your baby is a squishy pillow that loves to hug you; the next minute, your baby is a faintly grumpy gummy bear who mumbles and growls but is somehow wiser than you are. . . . Then your baby is a soft woodland animal that smells like cheddar chips and coos like a dove.”