Marian Keyes asks why novels so often end at the very start of a couple's story, when what happens next is so much more interesting...
It’s a story we’re all familiar with: boy meets girl (or indeed girl meets girl, or boy meets boy.) They fall in love, everything is wonderful, then – horrors! – an unexpected hitch occurs: a misunderstanding, an attack of commitment-fear, something. It’s looking bad for the couple, very bad. We, the readers, are anxious, because this pair need to be reunited.
And lo! Due to some gesture/sacrifice/act of courage, they are reunited and, in a rosy glow of dopamine and oxytocin (the ‘love hormones’), the story ends. And we can go on with our lives, secure in the knowledge that the duo will be happy forever.
…Except. Those of us who have ever been in a relationship know that the rosy glow moment is not the end of the story, but its very beginning. We’ve learned that the mad chemicals wear off quickly (inside the first year for most people.) And then what happens?
Well, if you’re looking to popular fiction for depictions of what long-term love looks like, you’d want nothing to do with it. Take that happy couple and jump forward fifteen or twenty years, and things seem very different.
For a start they look ancient, as if they’ve totally given up on themselves. The men have slid into paunchy baldness - or worse, they’re parading around in figure-hugging turquoise lycra and cycling helmets. The women have trebled in size, and never smile.
If you looked to popular fiction for depictions of what long-term love looks like, you’d want nothing to do with it
This erstwhile happy couple seem to spend their time yelling up and down the stairs to each other, shouting about BINS and CAR INSURANCE and MOLLY’S HOCKEY KIT. They rarely make eye-contact and have sex even less frequently.
If a novel starts at this point, we’d sense something bad was about to happen. Clearly this pair have Not Kept the Magic Alive and so must be punished - which usually means infidelity. Almost always committed by a man. Sometimes he confesses but more often, it’s uncovered by accident – a secret second phone, a receipt for a hotel, a faux pas blurted by a third party.
Frankly, I can’t imagine anything worse, and my sympathies are with anyone to whom it’s ever happened.
However, as soon as the fictional infidelity is revealed, the storyline tends to play out along very binary lines. The wrong-doer, usually the man, is 100 per cent terrible. He’s cruel and non-communicative, and his departure is presented as a fait accompli. Then there’s the victim, who is entirely blameless and very loveable.
Girlfriends rally round, and the wounded party might tearfully threaten to trash the philanderer’s car, or give all of his good suits to Oxfam. (Look, no judgement if people do this in real life. Everyone gets through as best they can.)
The narrative arc usually gives our character a dramatic, trauma-induced weight-loss before she embarks on a time-limited fling with a sexy younger man. Her mojo restored, it’s only a matter of time before the faithless man checks out his newly hot ex-wife and wants her back.
Why aren’t the low-key crises written about? Because it’s painful to acknowledge that ‘True Love’ can go sideways? Or the thought of middle-aged sex gives people the ick?
She, of course, is having none of it. Because she sees what a Complete Bastard he is. Indeed, she wonders what she ever saw in him. He’s devastated, and she’s triumphant.
Most novels about a marriage gone wrong are essentially broad-brushstroke revenge-fables, and they can be very enjoyable. Real life, however, is usually less dramatic, more nuanced, and the triumphant pay-off is a rare event. This is probably why a low-key crisis in a marriage is so rarely written about – it’s not considered exciting enough.
However, I disagree. The various dynamics that play out in any long-term connection are fascinating. While every relationship is a mystery, revealed only to the two people in it, it’s realistic to say that every couple experiences some bump in the road.
After all, look at our other relationships – with siblings, friends, colleagues. There are times you adore them but on other occasions on which the sound of their fork clinking against their teeth as they eat their dinner fills you with a strange, murderous rage.
The myth persists that romantic love is different: that the connection is forged in steel and nothing can alter it. But with each second that passes, every human being is changing. Life happens to us all and we respond in unique ways, ways that we may not anticipate. Losing a job, getting a serious illness, the death of a parent, a big birthday when we suddenly see that if we don’t act now to fulfill our dreams, we’ll never do it - these events can dramatically recalibrate anyone’s priorities.
The banality of marriage is frequently mocked. But the comfort of being truly known, of being seen at your worst, physically and emotionally, is beyond measure
The response is sometimes, of course, straightforward infidelity. But not always. A quiet but extreme disconnection can occur, where the wounded person is unreachable and the other party’s attempts to provide comfort are ineffective. It’s terrifying for both of them.
This was the type of crisis I wanted to write about in The Break: a novel where the couple still love each other, but the man, Hugh, impacted twice by terrible loss, has been knocked out of his familiar self and into a new self who wants six months off from his marriage. He still loves Amy, his wife, he wants to return to her, but that love isn’t enough to quell his yearnings.
Neither party is entirely good and neither party is entirely unredeemable. Hugh isn’t a cartoon baddie, but a man in torment. Unlike the characters in most novels about a mid-life crisis, Amy and Hugh communicate with each other. And when Amy accepts that Hugh really is leaving for six months, possibly to sleep with other women, her response isn’t central-casting rage, but sorrow.
So why aren’t these crises written about? Because it’s painful to acknowledge that ‘True Love’ can go sideways? Or the thought of middle-aged sex gives people the ick? Or the assumption that at a certain age, you morph into a dull, sexless creature whose story is too drab to be told?
What is rarely acknowledged is the enormous solace a long-term relationship gives. The banality of marriage is frequently mocked – conversations about bin-collections, etc. But the comfort of being truly known, of being seen at your very worst, both physically and emotionally, is beyond measure. To have a person with whom you share memories and in-jokes and who has walked by your side as you navigate life’s challenges – this is love, glorious love, true love, and it deserves to be celebrated.
Watch Marian read the first chapter of The Break
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'Classic Marian Keyes: a blizzard of wit and wisecracks. Mercilessly funny' The Times
Amy's husband Hugh has run away to 'find himself'. But will he ever come back?
'Myself and Hugh . . . We're taking a break.'
'A city-with-fancy-food sort of break?'
Amy's husband Hugh says he isn't leaving her.
He still loves her, he's just taking a break - from their marriage, their children and, most of all, from their life together. Six months to lose himself in South East Asia. And there is nothing Amy can say or do about it.
Yes, it's a mid-life crisis, but let's be clear: a break isn't a break up - yet . . .
However, for Amy it's enough to send her - along with her extended family of gossips, misfits and troublemakers - teetering over the edge.
For a lot can happen in six-months. When Hugh returns, if he returns, will he be the same man she married? Will Amy be the same woman?
Because if Hugh is on a break from their marriage, then so is she . . .
The Break is a story about the choices we make and how those choices help to make us. It is Marian Keyes at her funniest, wisest and brilliant best.
'Just brilliant' Sunday Times
'Girl-power at its best. I laughed . . . I cried' Daily Mail
'Another belter. Full of brilliantly fun characters, genuine emotion and heaps of charm. We loved it!' Heat
'Keyes writes extremely well about modern women. A breezy, candid and deeply felt account of a wife, mother and career woman rediscovering herself' Metro
'Fabulously entertaining. Classic Keyes. The queen of intelligent women's fiction' Sunday Mirror
'A glorious life-affirming novel with Keyes on top form' Woman & Home
'When it comes to writing page-turners that put a smile on your face and make you think, Keyes is in a class of her own' Daily Express