“I glanced in the mirror and saw my opening. I was in the far left-hand lane, but managed to cross three lanes at once and slam to a stop on the shoulder. Horns blared, and the [children’s] cries in the backseat grew louder, but we were safe. Perfectly safe. I turned the key, opened my door, and gestured gallantly at the steering wheel. ‘Okay, you drive.’” Ellis, one of the two main narrators in Debra Galant’s Cars from a Marriage, has perfected the art of driver’s side power-play. And cars, as tools of influence, frame Debra Galant’s Cars from a Marriage. Whether it’s a car salesman father-in-law choosing the family vehicle, or how each partner in the marriage chooses to drive – or not – the cars color and reflect the relationship.
Galant’s use of alternating narrators exposes the inner-workings of a marriage unraveling in the disappointment that life doesn’t end in “happily ever afters.” The wife, Ivy, stays true to her name in her ability to cling to her way of life despite her disappointment with her husband. And the husband, Ellis, vacillates between taking charge and going with the flow – even when his head begs him to stop.
At times, the characters and the marriage feel a little too real. Ivy, the tired, shrill, disappointed housewife, does not feel she deserves her lot: “What had happened? All I’d done was to try my best. I’d worked hard, been organized. I’d made lists, set my alarm clock for 6 A.M. I hadn’t deserted my children in the middle of the night…What went wrong? It wasn’t supposed to work out this way.”
The exasperated façade of contentedness in the husband gives way to an extramarital affair that lasts for years: “In New Jersey, I memorized train schedules and wore suits to the office. In California, I wore sandals and did half of my business poolside. In New Jersey, I had Ivy – my high-strung, complicated, smart, funny, and frigid wife. In California, I had a girlfriend who never tired of sex.”
And yet this couple stays together throughout the twenty years of the novel. Together – each chapter separated by a few years – the couple explains how their marriage has lasted despite its many imperfections. Ivy and Ellis are often sneering and apathetic, but Galant is able to create realistic characters that evoke both disgust and sympathy by balancing the ugly with tenderness and moments of deep caring and commitment. By the end of the novel, when it seems clear that Ivy and Ellis should break-up, both characters have a break-through of sorts, and we are left to wonder how it will affect them and their marriage.
Cars From a Marriage is not a humorless novel, but it’s also not what readers of her previous novels might expect. Its treatment of an urban-gone-suburban marriage is darker, and it has less satirical teasing and more realistic observance than Rattled or Fear and Yoga in New Jersey can claim.
Debra Galant’s ability to create a balanced view from each partner in the marriage is impressive. Both characters develop in response to their relationship, and their voices seem genuine and believable. Strangely, the reader feels like a friend of both characters, a friend who is asked to listen to two stories and choose a side. However, because Galant doesn’t allow either character to control the narrative, it’s virtually impossible to choose one partner over the other. Galant has created a realistic story with no promise of a “happy ever after” ending. For those of us who appreciate stories that reflect true life, this novel comes highly recommended.
Cars from a Marriage is coming out in paperback from St. Martin’s Griffin on June 21st, 2011. It is currently available as an eBook or in Hardcover.
Purchase it (you can pre-order!) from Watchung Booksellers, or another independent bookstore.
Debra Galant gave me a hardcover copy of Cars from a Marriage to review.