Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Five Short Stories About Terribly Dysfunctional Marriages

This is a fruitful topic for short fiction.

Title: Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree
Author: Helen Nielsen
Where I Read It: Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives

The main character thinks she's past the point of making terrible mistakes with men, that her life is stable now, but she's wrong. Her husband makes her feel that she needs to be on a pedestal - and then ultimately prove that she's like all other women by falling off it. It's that sort of relationship pattern. In any case, she starts getting calls from someone in her past. She assumes she's being blackmailed or stalked. She's smart and careful in general, but not about the people close to her. This story has murder and betrayal.

Title: Her Three Days
Author: Sembène Ousmane
Translator: Len Ortzen
Where I Read It: The Anchor Book of Modern African Stories

The story is set in a culture with polygamous marriages, and the main character is one of four wives. She's awaiting the three days her husband is meant to spend with her and recognizes that she's falling out of favor with him. I remember her observation about the pretenses in her marriage, the lies she needs to tell to make the marriage seem worthwhile. She has to pretend that her husband is a good man, because her identity is bound to his stature and character. If she has submitted to a man who isn't worthy of respect, what does this say about the meaning of her life and its worth?

Title: Home Sweet Home
Author: Hannah Tinti
Translator: Len Ortzen
Where I Read It: Boston Noir 2

Pat and Clyde were murdered on pot roast night.
A great opening line to a disturbing story about adultery, murder, and the problems that fester in people and spread into their relationships. Although the murder is central to the story, the author also explores other, more subtle ways people damage each other - neglect, emotional cruelty, misdirected anger, voracious possessiveness. Issues from one relationship can warp another.
In most areas of her life Clyde's mother was a very nice person... But with Clyde she lost her head. She was suspicious, accusing, and tyrannical. After her husband died, she became even worse. Once she got through her grief, her son became her man. She pushed this sense of responsibility through him like fishhooks, plucking on the line, reeling him back in when she felt her hold slipping, so that the points became embedded in his flesh so deep that it would kill him to take them out.
Another married couple, the Mitchells, are neighbors to Pat and Clyde. I don't think we ever learn their first names. Mr. Mitchell is careless and inflicts pain. Mrs. Mitchell wants to be the best wife and demonstrate the most steadfast love; her husband is intimidated by her devoted behavior. I sensed an interesting parallel between what we see of Clyde and his mother, and Mrs. Mitchell and her stepson, Miguel (still a young boy in the story - will Mrs. Mitchell's intense love and attention make her act like Clyde's mother later on in life?)

Who murdered Pat and Clyde on pot roast night, and why? The murderer is someone who remembers to turn off the oven before leaving the scene.

Title: Love in the Lean Years
Author: Donald E. Westlake
Where I Read It: Manhattan Noir 2

The two mercenary people who get married in this story could have made their marriage last if they had held on to their ignorance about each other. They could have maybe even been happy (possibly).

In any case, the wife is rich, and it's only later that her husband uncovers the sources of her money. The husband is a stockbroker, and his wife assumes that he's remaining at his job due to manly self-sufficiency, because he doesn't want to become dependent on her own money; she doesn't know about his cocaine habit. The story takes turns swapping their POVs, which creates an amusing effect.

Title: Two Over Easy
Author: Susan Isaacs
Where I Read It: Manhattan Noir 2

On the morning of his birthday, a journalist marinates in bitter, contemptuous thoughts, many of them about his solidly middle-aged squealing tittering wife and the steak and eggs she made him that he's trying to choke down. His seething is hilarious. And it's only when he actually begins to choke that he realizes the contempt isn't one-sided in the marriage, and his wife might rejoice at the opportunity to watch him die in their recently renovated kitchen.

An extra bit of delight - their adult daughter showing up with her hairy fiancé and a birthday gift her dad will have to force himself to finish like the steak and eggs. I can see the husband and wife in this story continuing to stay together to maintain appearances, even as they keep wishing a stray lightning bolt or wayward chicken bone will put an end to the other's life.