Many readers and moviegoers know Louis Begley through his creation Warren Schmidt (there have been three books, and a movie starring Jack Nicholson), but I first encountered Begley through his award-winning debut novel, Wartime Lies. A harrowing tale of how a Polish-Jewish boy and his mother survived the Holocaust (Begley himself was born in Poland), that book is as much memoir as novel. In Memories of a Marriage, Begley steps away from both his childhood and the redoubtable Schmidt.
What he steps into is the lives of Lucy and Thomas Snow, wed in the ‘50s, divorced a decade and a half later. The narrator, a widowed novelist named Phillip, lives in post-9/11 New York and one evening at the ballet, he bumps into Lucy, an old friend and former flame. She appears, at first, to have aged well, still striking despite being in her seventies. Phillip quickly learns, however, that Lucy has descended into bitterness (and probably alcoholism). She begins a series of confessional/complaint sessions with the Phillip, reflecting on her life before her marriage, what drove her to marry Thomas, and what she believes were his sins. By his own admission, Phillip becomes obsessed with the Snows’ marriage, and since Thomas has been dead for several years, to get a more balanced picture, Phillip turns to the Snows’ friends and family members—Thomas’s clients and colleagues; the Snows’ son; Thomas’s second wife, now happily remarried; people they dined and vacationed with.
We learn what happened to Lucy and Thomas, why they married, why they shouldn’t have, and what tore them apart. But Phillip tells the Snows’ story in the shadow of his own marriage; he shares all the sordid details of the Snows’ disastrous marriage while being very stingy with the details of his long and reportedly happy marriage to Bella. Maybe it’s just that someone like Lucy shares everything in the pursuit of some sort of justice, while someone like Phillip holds his memories close and precious, feeling little need to share them. However, if Begley had given his reader a better picture of Phillip’s successful marriage, to balance that of Lucy’s catastrophic one, Memories of a Marriage might have been a greater pleasure and a wiser book.