"This delicious, dazzling novel about the rise and fall of a great American debutante kept me up all night. Begley knows everything about the secret lives of the American aristocracy, and he tells all." —Susan Cheever
"Absorbing ... [Begley] tells this tale with all the archness — and yearning — of a voyeur looking in ... His evocations of glistening mahogany in New York’s club rooms, of summering in the Hamptons, of oysters and whiting at the Paris Savoy have the clear ring of truth. He has observed the relevant mannerisms, and he garnishes his scenes with all the glee of a name-dropping arriviste ... Begley proves he is a master dissector of the American character. Among contemporary novelists, he may be the wryest, most devastating critic of class in American society ... Begley delivers a literary stiletto to what Tiffany or Crate & Barrel might blithely call 'the Gatsby set' ... Read it and weep." —Marie Arana, The Washington Post
"[E]ngrossing ... Begley gives us a chance to see into two different, often obscured worlds. One is the most private recesses of another couple’s marriage. The other is high-WASP society — though most people don’t usually even know where that particular unmarked door is, let alone get a chance to have it quietly shut in their faces ... The pleasures of this novel reside not so much in where the 'truth' lies as in its context. The world of the highly entitled at play and at work — seen traveling the globe over the decades, installing themselves in European hotels and joining exclusive men’s clubs and marrying into families made up of 'very much our kind of people' — remains irresistible." —Meg Wolitzer, The New York Times Book Review
"[A] consummately constructed monument to human imperfection." —San Francisco Chronicle
"In this compact, voyeuristic novel, Begley creates his latest larger-than-life character in the beguiling but sharp-tongued socialite Lucy De Bourgh ... Begley’s effortless storytelling will have readers...fascinated by Lucy and Phillips’s complex, tangled relationship." —Publishers Weekly, starred review
"A fiendishly clever, Fitzgeraldesque tale about marriage, friendship, gossip, and self-justification ... Begley, marvelously droll and possessed of a rapier wit, revels in his mercurial characters, intricate psychological puzzles, unreliable memories, counterintuitive class divisions, and all the mysteries and miseries of lust and love."—Booklist
"Sharply observed and subtly nuanced ... It could pass as a novel from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s later decades, if Fitzgerald had lived so long."—Kirkus Reviews
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Book
Love Is All You Need
by Louis Begley
Memories of a Marriage was born out of years of brooding over the marriages of the few college classmates I have kept up with and of other friends and acquaintances more or less my age.
Many, perhaps most, of these marriages have failed, some early on and some not so long ago. If a reason could be identified, it has usually been a spouse’s unwillingness to tolerate the infidelity of the other, or (alternatively) a spouse’s insistence on leaving for someone else—for someone of the same sex, in several cases of late-blooming self-discovery. There has been nothing as threatening among my friends as physical abuse by a spouse, or one of the spouses’ alcoholism, drug addiction, or compulsive gambling, or falling afoul of criminal laws. I have, however, observed marriages such as that of Lucy De Bourgh and Thomas Snow, the central figures of Memories of a Marriage: marriages that have disintegrated, ostensibly without a compelling reason, amid the debris of silent hostility or recriminations. Marriages of nice prosperous people, no sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, but somehow or other you know that their marriage is not happy. One day they invite you to dinner or Sunday lunch at their apartment, or perhaps to spend the weekend at their place in the country, but, when you see them some weeks or months later, they abjure any thought of living with that Monster! And pretty soon one or the other of them makes it amply clear that the war between them isn’t only over money, or the custody of the children (if, as it too often happens, there are children in the picture young enough to be fought over), or that comfortable apartment or house in the country, or the art they’ve collected together, but also over friends. You’re with me or against me. Forget about seeing me if you go on seeing him—or her—becomes the battle cry. Don’t you realize that the Monster has wrecked my life?
We are all, of course, amateur psychotherapists, and, aided by hindsight, we zero in on the hidden reason. It was inevitable, we say. She’s unstable, he’s a compulsive control freak, all she knows how to do is shop, all he’s good for are all-nighters at the office, he’s depressive, she’s bipolar. . . . In the old days, before the advent of no-fault, it all came down to incompatibility and mental cruelty, those were the workhorse grounds alleged by rote in quickie Reno divorces. Those diagnoses may not be wrong, but what went on between Joe and Jane or Dick and Dawn during the years when they seemed just fine and had the children? There are answers to that question, which likewise may not be wrong: They got married because they were lonely, or because of the great sex, or because they wanted children, or because Dick had hoped to use Dawn (or was it Dawn who intended to use Dick?) as a stepping-stone to a better life. It was all a big mistake, but they had been hanging in, trying to make a go of it. Finally something inside one or both of them snapped. Not infrequently, suddenly having more money than in the past has made it easier to decide it was time to call it quits.
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments . . . ,” Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 116. In that context, steadfast in allegiance, faithful, and loyal are probably the most relevant definitions of “true.” Were Lucy’s and Thomas’s minds “true”? Shakespeare went on to throw down his gauntlet: “If this be error and upon me proved, / I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” Does what he said hold if among the “impediments” is real or fancied inequality between the lovers? Do lovers who are “true” overlook or rise above it? Is it possible that in this instance the Bard was wrong? Or were Lucy’s and Thomas’s minds not “true”: hers because she was incurably snobbish and ungenerous, and his because the catnip that drew him was not only sex with her, but also her wealth and social position? Inequality in marriages has ever been grist for novelists’ and playwrights’ mills. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that these questions have been swirling in my head.
For all the traditional reasons—her family’s importance in the history of Rhode Island and of the nation, and its wealth and distinction—Lucy believes she is at the summit of American society. If she had thought of it, she might have said she was an American orchid. For equally traditional reasons, Thomas, the son of a garage owner and his bookkeeper wife, belongs to the lower class. To add insult to injury, the garage is in Newport, the most elegant of summer resorts, only a hop, skip, and a jump from the De Bourgh ancestral mansion in Bristol, R.I. This makes Thomas, who might have gassed up the fancy cars of Lucy’s friends, a “townie,” a disqualifying and faintly ludicrous condition that his Harvard College, London School of Economics, and Harvard Business School degrees and his good looks and good manners can at best mask from eyes less discerning than hers. A point not to be missed in this equation is that, until he finally leaves her, Thomas tacitly accepts Lucy’s assessment of their relative status. I added, for good measure, other irritants such Lucy’s low opinion of Thomas’s sexual prowess and his being a square with hardly any interest in the arts. But I have the impression that Lucy would have been more tolerant of such failings in a man of her own caste.
What would have been required, I asked myself, for Lucy to come off it, to stop snubbing her own husband, to forgive the garage and the aluminum siding on Thomas’s parental home? I am aware that the class system in which Lucy and Thomas grew up is no longer the American norm, but my inquiry is not moot. Couples continue to face the impediment of inequality in other forms, some old as the world and some new. Among the old: disparity of fortune, education, and looks (a conspicuously handsome spouse married to an ugly duckling). An inequality that Lucy perceived: One partner is a sex athlete, and the other is an underperformer. A new form of inequality that afflicts more and more couples is that of uneven advancement in the spouses’ respective careers. It used to be that husbands had careers and wives took care of the children and made sure the household ran to the husband’s satisfaction. Or, if the wife had a job, her job was understood to be the source of a second income rather than to represent a career that counted. That time is past; two-career families are rapidly becoming the norm, and the woman who succeeds better than her husband, rising higher in business or a profession, is no longer a rare bird. Stay-at-home dads are a recognized species. Why do some couples shrug off—or adjust to—these disparities while others, like Lucy and Thomas, founder?
Steadfastness and loyalty (and I would add generosity): I’m not sure that Lucy, of whom I’m very fond because I have a soft spot in my heart for wild girls, possesses those qualities in great abundance. And then there is the formulation offered by Alex van Buren in the course of his long interview with Philip, which is that, fundamentally, Lucy didn’t like Thomas. Without simple affection, says Alex, not sex but simple affection, a marriage can’t work.
For my part, I believe that Alex is far from wrong.
1. Memories of a Marriage opens in May 2003, “not many days after George W. Bush’s astonishing announcement that the ‘mission’ had been accomplished.” Why do you think the novel is set when it is? How does this historical moment—with its questions of whether politicians tell us the truth, and when to believe them—resonate with the story that Philip is about to tell?
2. We learn early in the book that Philip and Bella lost their only child, Agnes, in a tragic accident—and thereafter avoided New York City, where she died. How do you think such a loss would affect a marriage? Do you understand their decision to leave?
3. Lucy comes from privilege and a well-connected family; Thomas’s family operates a garage. But by the time the novel begins their positions have reversed. Thomas died rich and vastly successful as an investment banker. Lucy’s fortune hasn’t kept pace, and she thinks of herself as “an unglamorous boring old woman” whom no one wants at their table. Do you think their changing fortunes represent a bigger shift in American society? How do we measure success and status today, as opposed to when Lucy and Thomas first met?
4. When Philip visits Lucy at her apartment, she tells him that she’s lonely, and that her life is not “what I had once expected.” What do you think she imagined for herself? Does her disappointment make her a more sympathetic character?
5. As Lucy tells Philip about her marriage to Thomas, she also describes her long-standing, passionate affair with Hubert. This is not the only adulterous love mentioned in the novel; when Philip falls for Bella, she is married to another man. Is adultery ever acceptable? What do you think of these relationships?
6. Philip is an author. When he first meets Bella, he tells her that his novels explore “love and ambition, and betrayal and fear of the ravages of old age.” Do you think this is a good description of Memories of a Marriage? If you’ve read other books by Louis Begley, do you see an overlap between Philip’s work and Begley’s own?
7. Near the end of the novel we learn the title of one other novel Philip has written: The Happy Monsters, a roman à clef set in Salem, Massachusetts. Why do you think Begley reveals the title and subject of this particular novel? What is a “happy monster,” and do any of the characters in Memories of a Marriage fit that description?
8. To whose marriage do you think the title refers? Lucy and Thomas’s—obviously the subject of Philip’s investigation—or Philip and Bella’s, which he mentions throughout?
9. Lucy and Philip had a brief fling in France, before she met Thomas. At the end of the novel, she suggests reigniting their affair. Why do you think Philip turns her down?
10. Philip discusses Lucy and Thomas’s marriage with many people: Lucy herself; Jane, Thomas’s widow; Jamie, Lucy and Thomas’s son; Josiah, Thomas’s acquaintance and Philip’s cousin; and Alex Van Buren and Bill Taylor, mutual friends. Do you trust any of these confidants? Why or why not?
11. When Philip renews his acquaintance with Lucy he is shocked to hear her refer to Thomas as “that monster.” By the end of the novel, do you think Philip believes her? Do you believe her? Why do you think her marriage with Thomas fell apart?
12. What makes a good marriage? Are any of the couples in the novel—Lucy and Thomas, Jane and Ned, Philip and Bella, among others—models for a strong marriage?
13. What do you think happens after the novel ends? Has Philip learned everything he wants to? Does he write his book about Lucy and Thomas’s marriage? Are we to think Memories of a Marriage is that book?