The Liability of Love, my latest novel, touches on many aspects of love, but the central relationship is a marriage between two of the main characters, Margaret and Douglas, who meet at a party in their early 20s. This happens in the mid-1980s, and though it seems quaint today, that’s how a lot of people met their spouses back then.
Margaret is trying to erase a painful memory, and one way to do that is to jump into marriage with a man she doesn’t know all that well. She does love Douglas, although not with a burning passion. He seems safe and respectful, and he goes along with what she asks, so she can’t find a reason not to marry him. She believes her life will get back on track if she gets married and has a child because she’ll be too busy to think about all the unresolved trauma she carries around.
Since Margaret is quite beautiful, Douglas can’t believe that she’d even go out with him, much less marry him, but she does. This should make him more confident, but instead it raises doubts. He can’t see inside her head, and he doesn’t know how to ask her what he’d like to know—such as, does she really love him the way he loves her?
Radically Different Views of the Same Marriage
If you’ve read Lauren Groff’s amazing Fates and Furies or watched Marriage Story with Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, you’ve seen great examples of how two married people can have a radically different view of the same relationship. As in those works, my characters have no idea what the other person is thinking, and they would be shocked if they knew. Telling the story of their marriage in both voices is a way to fill out the relationship and tap into the inherent drama, since the reader is aware of the misunderstandings each one has about the other.
This passage is the first time Douglas compares marriage to a shelf packed with too many things.
Douglas felt lightheaded from the paint fumes, hemmed in by the small room and the low ceiling and the clouds that kept intercepting the sunlight, his sunlight. Inside his chest, a weird syncopation began. Their marriage rested on her answer. This could be the moment where the screws came out of the wall and the packed shelf of their lives came down in a spectacular crash, or it could be nothing. He had no idea what Margaret would say.
As the novel progresses, Douglas keeps coming back to the packed shelf and how the screws sometimes loosen, and plaster dust coats the floor. At one point, an editor said she didn’t like the repeated references to the shelf at first, but toward the end, Douglas realizes that his marriage to Margaret isn’t a shelf at all, it’s more like a sweater that would pill and fray until they decided they couldn’t wear it anymore. The editor said that brought it back around for her, so that’s a lesson right there: if you torture a metaphor just enough, it might survive the editing process.
Marriage is a fascinating subject because it’s such a strange ritual when you think about it. Here’s what Margaret thinks when she’s about to get married:
It was a mistake, all of this. They shouldn’t have rushed the wedding. She looked back toward the vestibule, seeking an exit. This could be her excuse to leave, call it a postponement and then gently explain things to Douglas. People shouldn’t be allowed to meet at a party, eat some overpriced restaurant meals together, and then sign legally binding documents that braided their lives and finances together, unbraided only by costly litigation. That this happened all the time makes it no less bizarre.
An Outsider’s Perspective of a Marriage
There are two other significant marriages in The Liability of Love. One is that of an older couple, the parents of Margaret’s college friend Fitz, who is secretly in love with Margaret. Hamish and Arlene’s relationship plays a key role in the story, and there are some significant parallels with what’s happening in Margaret and Douglas’s marriage.
But the reader only sees Hamish and Arlene from an outside perspective, mainly that of their son. Fitz doesn’t really know what’s going on inside his parents’ heads, or what they truly think about each other, so neither does the reader.
The other marriage is that of Ollie and Tiffany, who live next door to Margaret and Douglas. They’re raising six children, and, at first glance, they seem out of their depth and almost ridiculous. But I loved these characters so much. They came to me almost fully formed, and I knew the reader would grow to sympathize and fall in love with them, even Tiffany, who has some issues.
The Potential for Imbalance
In this novel, I tried to focus on the idea that if one partner is more in love than the other or keeping secrets of any kind, the balance of the relationship tips very quickly into dramatic territory, and that shift can seesaw back and forth many times. The potential for that imbalance makes marriage a very rich subject for fiction.
A great exercise would be to write the story of your parents’ relationship from each of their perspectives and see what kind of drama arises.
Susan Schoenberger is the award-winning author of A Watershed Year and The Virtues of Oxygen and her latest book is The Liability of Love (She Writes Press). With a linotypist as a grandfather, she has ink in her blood and worked as a journalist and copyeditor for many years, including The Baltimore Sun and 12 years with The Hartford Courant. She currently serves as Director of Communications at Hartford Seminary, a graduate school with a focus on interfaith dialogue. She lives in West Hartford, Connecticut, with her husband Kevin. They have three grown children and a small dog named Leo. Learn more at www.susanschoenberger.com.