Unlike Joan Didion and Anne Roiphe in their recent memoirs of marital love and loss, Rafael Yglesias has elected to tell his own similar tale in the form of a painfully honest and passionate autobiographical novel. Whatever the reason for that narrative choice, the novel is a moving exploration of the mysterious, often tenuous, bonds that hold men and women together in marriage.

Enrique Sabas, a precocious young writer, meets Margaret Cohen, an aspiring artist, in Greenwich Village in 1975. In chapters that alternate between those first, fresh days of the couple’s relationship and harrowing scenes of Margaret’s final weeks of life, Yglesias skillfully navigates the road the pair travels in their 29 years together. It’s anything but a smooth path: there are emotional and physical betrayals, the two drifting apart and coming together in an elaborate, complex dance. But by the time Margaret decides to surrender to her battle with cancer, we may grasp, in a way that’s nearly as revealing as our understanding of our own most intimate relationships, the strength of this couple’s connection.

Yglesias demonstrates impressive courage in exposing the raw details of Margaret’s final days with the honesty only a participant could bring to the grim account. He’s equally forthright in chronicling the searing pain experienced by the loving friends and family who surround her and must say goodbye. Most impressive is the way he probes Enrique and Margaret’s relationship, almost clinically and yet with compassion, seeking to “penetrate the mystery of how they had managed to live a life together while they were so different in their natures and in their expectations of one another.”

Who knows, in the end, what makes love flourish and grow? Who but the participants can unknot the tangled strands of compromises, deceptions, generosity and selfishness that nurture or threaten a relationship from day to day? There are as many answers as there are marriages. In its ironically titled candor, A Happy Marriage proposes some intriguing ones for our consideration.

Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

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