I've just read a book that I found very provoking. It's fiction, a novel by Maddie Dawson called The Stuff That Never Happened. On the surface it's a story about a woman with empty nest syndrome, who meets up with a former lover.
But the book has significantly more depth than this brief summary. The woman in question, Sylvie, is unhappy and feeling lonely in her home. She lives in a small New Hampshire town, where her husband, Grant, is a professor at a community college. The kids have recently left, and her husband is busy writing a book and ignoring her. Her unsettled state of mind disturbs his work, and he's quite happy when their daughter's difficult pregnancy makes it necessary for Sylvie to spend several months in New York City.
While the book is always written in Sylvie's voice of the present, the chapters alternate between her experience of the present and her memories of the past. As you move through the chapters, you see her love affair, and its impact on her young marriage, unfold.
Sylvie is unhappy with her present life. In the beginning of the book, you see how being married to Grant has had its difficulties --not just now, but throughout the twenty years of raising children and keeping house. Even though he truly loves Sylvie, he has a need to be in control that can supersede that love. He is not a very passionate person, he likes life to be lived traditionally, and it was his decision to move to the tiny New Hampshire town where he grew up. Sylvie was raised in California, and was much more of a free spirit in her youth; she has found these constraints difficult. During the busy years of raising children, they were just in the background, but now that she is spending time reflecting and reevaluating, she seems to strain against the ties of her marriage vows. Her lover, Jeremiah, is constantly in the back of her mind, and has been throughout her whole marriage.
Sylvie's affair, which happened just after she and Grant were married in the late 1970's and while they were living in New York City, had the worst possible ending for Sylvie. Her affair breaks Grant's heart, and although neither files for divorce, they do not see or speak to each other for several years. When they decide to give their marriage another chance, it is because Sylvie has convinced Grant to do so, and the price for her involves agreeing to his conditions. While Sylvie wants to stay married, this conscious act of getting Grant back has none of the passion that marked her affair. It's as if she sees a married life with Grant as a way of giving definition and direction to her own life, almost a way to stop her from focusing on her failed romance with Jeremiah. As the reader, understanding this gives you a different perspective on the rather dry, traditional, marriage Sylvie has described earlier.
One of the aspects of this book that engaged me in the beginning is the way in which Sylvie seems to rely on other people to make her life good. She seems to feel that Grant makes her life less happy, and that Jeremiah would have made it wonderful. And once the reader understands that Sylvie played a large part in the creation of a marriage she hasn't found entirely satisfying, it seems natural to ask "Does she have the right to be unhappy in this marriage?"
The older I get (and in the present day, Sylvie is in her late 40's, as I am) the more I feel that we are completely responsible for making our own life good. That's not to say that we don't all move through some times in our lives that are more difficult than others, when life is just hard. But over the course of years, we can either change our lives for the better, or sit around and complain about how others are making us unhappy. I think this is something that women especially tend to forget because we spend a good part of our lives taking care of other people. Sometimes when that care-taking role is no longer necessary, we've forgotten how to create a satisfying life that revolves around our own wants and needs.
I'll admit that I didn't find the end of the book truly satisfying. Sylvie does realize that she needs something different, but that realization still seems more tied to other people more than to herself. However, I enjoyed the book overall. It was well written, with some dialog that had me laughing, and the characters were well filled out. There were parts of the chapters where Sylvie is recalling the early years in New York that seemed to be more information than necessary, but for the most part the book flowed well and kept me engaged.