Tag Archives: marriage in retirement

The Echoing Stones: Celia Fremlin (1993)

Celia Fremlin’s not entirely convincing crime novel, The Echoing Stones, is the tale of Arnold Walter, a man who, at age 61, decides to take early retirement after 40 years spent in a local government accounts department. There’s the sense that Arnold, who probably never did an unpredictable thing in his life, suddenly jumps the tracks. His BIG mistake: he doesn’t tell his wife, Mildred, about his decision. Arnold’s early retirement means a considerable cut in his pension, but he’s got it all worked out; he’s accepted a post as live-in caretaker and part-time tourist guide at the stately Tudor mansion, Emmerton Hall. There’s a “miniscule” salary, and the position calls for a married couple. Guess what, Mildred has to manage the Tea Room. She won’t mind a bit, will she? So Arnold has his future (and Mildred’s) all planned out. They will sell their home which will help with the reduced pension, and he can indulge his “lifelong interest in English history.” Mildred initially loses it when she hears about Arnold’s plan, but then after seeing Emmmerton Hall, he “won her round.” So they move to Emmerton Hall.

When the novel opens, Mildred, unsurprisingly, has left Arnold. Emmerton Hall may offer a promise of his dream life, but Mildred soon tires of being screamed at by unhappy visitors. She departs for her friend Val’s home. Val’s husband also lost his sanity in retirement:

“Men!” Val had summed it up, flinging herself backward against the sofa cushions, her fizz of blond-ish hair making a sort of quivering halo around her outraged face. “Men! Men when they retire! Retirement, it’s like a bomb, it’s a killer! You might as well be on a terrorist hit-list as have a husband coming up to sixty-five!”

“Well, sixty-one, actually in our case,” Mildred interposed, but Val, understandably, brushed this aside. “Well-sixty-sixty-five-Whatever. It’s death to the marriage when it happens, that’s for sure. You might as well take out divorce papers in advance when you see the date coming. Husbands go mad, stark staring raving mad. All of them! It’s their real natures coming out at last. If they don’t do one one crazy thing, they do another.”

At first Mildred enjoys being at Val’s home as they can commiserate with each other about their husbands. (Val’s husband left her for a high maintenance, neurotic gold-digger.) But Mildred soon becomes worn out by Val’s one-track monologues against men, and then things become more complicated when Mildred meets a man at a local park. Is the man interested in Mildred or is he interested in Emmerton Hall? Meanwhile Arnold experiences conflicting feelings when his troubled daughter, Flora turns up and asks to stay. Flora grew from a loving child into an impossible teen, but now at 20 with “increasingly erratic” behaviour she’s worse than ever. She lives in a squat, and when she returns home to visit, it’s to get money then launch into “her litany of complaints and criticisms of her parents’ home: her mother’s cooking; the net curtains; the fitted carpet in the bathroom; the awful décor; the pretentious ornaments; the ghastly furniture; and above all, the awful boredom and monotony of her parents’ lives.

Flora’s energy for dominance, criticism, argument and defiance has long since conquered her parents, so when she arrives at Emmerton Hall, she’s full of vitriol concerning the various rules–how stupid it is to lock the doors and windows. How stupid it is to not allow the visitors to swim in the lake, etc. etc. Then she offers to spend time with the former historian/curator, Sir Humphry Penrose, now demented, who still lives on the grounds with his pleasant tempered, daughter Joyce. Sir Penrose has been violent in the past, but he’s ok as long as he takes his meds. …

The Walters’ marriage rapidly fell apart when they moved to Emmerton Hall, and while that is understandable, the way that these two, weighed down by passivity and inertia, went their own merry ways seems a little unrealistic–especially since Mildred keeps visiting Emmerton Hall with her “fancy man.” Arnold is a weak, uninteresting character too brow beaten by Flora to be engaging; I always have difficulties with passive characters and while trouble is clearly barreling Arnold’s way, he does little to prevent it. Fremlin’s focus is crime within the family/domestic unit–how crime festers within 4 walls, but here the characters seem a bit like chess pieces moved to fit the plot. Finally, the crime is a little too contrived to make this anywhere near Fremlin’s best novel.

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Apples Never Fall: Liane Moriarty

“That’s the secret of a happy marriage: step away from the rage.”

Liane Moriarty’s engaging novel, Apples Never Fall is a tale of marriage, family dynamics, and buried resentments. The story unfolds through 2 timelines: 69 year-old Joyce Delaney is missing. She sent a garbled text to her 4 children saying she was going ‘off grid,’ but that’s very unlike Joyce. Stan, Joyce’s husband for 50 years isn’t the one to report his wife missing, and that seems strange, but then they weren’t on the best of terms. The second timeline goes back to some months earlier when a young, distressed girl comes knocking at the Delaney home, looking for help, late at night. The chapters then go back and forth in time.

Stan and Joyce were tennis champions who owned their own tennis school, complete with cafe. Joyce, a veritable dynamo, raised 4 children while still playing tennis and running the school. Now Stan and Joyce are newly retired, and Joyce is adjusting to domestic life with Stan. Their busy, active life used to be full of obligations, constant diversions and interruptions. But now Stan sits in the recliner, nursing his knees, watching TV and munching crackers while Joy constantly listens, via headphones, to podcasts. She also accompanies a widowed neighbour to a creative writing course on how to write your memoirs. Joyce hasn’t written hers yet (and is only in the class for the neighbour’s sake) but in spite of her lack of intent, Joyce already has a title “Regret […] A Regretful Life by Joy Delaney.”

All the Delaney children were/are excellent tennis players, but none of them became champions. Each one bears the burden of a childhood spent training, winning and losing matches along the way.

When he was a kid, all he’d wanted to do was to beat his older brother in anything and everything. It was the point of his entire existence. Winning his first match against Logan had felt like a cocaine high except just like cocaine, it also made him feel sick. He always remembered with resentment and mystification how nausea had tainted the edge of his win, how he’d gone to have a shower to cool off and thought he was fine, but then he lost his temper with a tennis kid who had wandered through the back door of their house. He hated it so much when kids thought their kitchen was a clubhouse facility. It was almost like he’d felt guilty for beating his brother, as if being two years older gave Logan a lifelong right to win against Troy.

In adulthood, all 4 children have tangled issues with relationships. Amy, the eldest, a “free spirit,” can’t keep a job, or maintain a relationship. She’s spent a lifetime in therapy with no end in sight. Her younger sister, Brooke, who is “too driven,” is separated from her husband. A physical therapist with her own struggling PT clinic, Brooke gave up tennis due to blinding, painful migraines. Troy, freshly divorced, now an extremely successful trader, sabotaged his marriage and now regrets it. Logan’s longtime girlfriend just dumped him. Logan, a professor, has decided he’s going to give up dating and that way he won’t lose again. Each of Delaney children are shaped by competitive tennis.

“So been on the court lately?” Troy gave Logan a speculative look. It had been years since they’d played each other. Logan gave an irritated exhalation as if Troy had asked this same question multiple times before which he was pretty sure he had not.

“No, not for a while now.”

“Why not?” asked Troy genuinely interested. “Not even with mum and dad?

“No time,” Logan fiddled with his left wrist as if to indicate an invisible watch.

“No time?” repeated Troy, “what a crock of shit. You’ve got time to burn.” Logan shrugged. Then he said suddenly as if he couldn’t help himself. “I don’t get how you play socially.” He said socially like the word smelled.

“I enjoy it,” said Troy truthfully. He had friends he played with on a semi-regular basis both in Sydney and New York. They were all former competitive players like him. He won maybe 70% of the time.

“Keeps me fit. It doesn’t matter anymore.”

“You’re saying you don’t care if you win or lose?”

Now that Stan and Joyce are on their own, it’s dull. Life has changed in retirement; “Last year they had sold their business, and it felt like everything ended, juttered to a stop.” But late one night, there’s a knock at the door and a young girl, Savannah, claims she’s escaping an abusive relationship and just happened to arrive, by cab, at their home. Naturally Stan is suspicious, but Joyce cannot turn the girl away, and that decision is partly to spite Stan. Savannah stays, cooking marvelous meals. What was supposed to be a temporary measure turns permanent. ….

The detective investigating Joyce’s disappearance questions each of the children and, the husband of course. Stan’s reactions aren’t right, and the detective senses that Stanley knows more than he’s saying. Then there are the kids …. who find themselves taking sides in this situation. The investigation brings the siblings together with each one slipping into old familiar roles as they “regressed,” into old rivalry.

This well paced novel examines the Delaney family dynamics and the powerful resentments that lurk under the surface of a long-term marriage. The Delaney children have complicated feelings–jealousy, resentment, and anger–towards their parents when it comes to Harry Hadad, their father’s star pupil. The children all have a love/hate relationship with tennis–admiring the game but resenting the other players who took their dad’s attention–and that isn’t helped by the fact that Stan took the side of his most promising protégé who cheated in a match against Troy. Family politics are complicated at the best of times but add competitive tennis and the tennis students, sometimes gifted children, who suck up the parents’ time. Outsiders probably envied the Delaney children, and while they were certainly lucky in many ways, they all paid a price when it came to tennis. There’s the underlying knowledge that the Delaney children never met their father’s expectations, and then there are Stan’s mysterious disappearances. …

The characters are all well done, and these 4 may be siblings but they all have different approaches to life: Troy throws money at problems, lives an incredibly lavish lifestyle, and can’t understand why his siblings don’t envy him. Logan has a problem committing to the woman he loves, and sets his sights comfortably low. Amy can’t settle down and Brooke is tightly wound, seemingly perfect but always stressed out. The siblings’ competitive relationships with each other play a role in the tale too as the search for Joyce continues.

Sometimes Logan saw something in a woman that Troy didn’t see straight away. When they were in their late teens, they both dated girls called Tracy, and Troy developed a secret, shameful crush on Logan’s Tracy. She was the superior Tracy. The worst part was Troy had met Logan’s Tracy first, so he could have made a move, but he didn’t see her appeal until Logan saw it.

This was an excellent read, with an overly long-drawn out ending the only negative. I listened to the audio book version which was read by Caroline Lee. Caroline Lee is Australian and it was easy for me to imagine that I was listening to Joyce.

Big Little Lies was made into a series, as was Nine Perfect Strangers. Apples Never Fall would be perfect for a TV series.

review copy

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The Motion of the Body Through Space: Lionel Shriver

“I’d prefer not to think of our marriage as an endurance sport.”

Lionel Shriver’s The Motion of the Body Through Space examines how a decades-long marriage changes when a husband turns to endurance sport. 64-year-old Remington Alabaster and his 60-year-old wife Serenata made the economy move to Hudson, upstate New York after Remington’s humiliating dismissal from his job as an engineer at Albany’s York City’s Department of Transportation. With a diminished pension, and without a steady paycheck, the Alabasters are forced to economize. Serenata does voice-over work, so money is still coming in, but they also have two financially insolvent children: the perennially unemployed, laid-back Deacon and the annoying, born-again Valeria. The Alabasters have a good marriage; they are intellectual equals, good friends, but when Serenata, always an avid exerciser, finds that her knees now control her physical ability, Remington, a man who has never exercised a day in his life, suddenly becomes interested in running. The novel examines aging, adjusting to retirement, society’s approach to physical fitness, and the complex power plays within marriage.

The motion of the body through space

Remington and Serenata had a good marriage, or at least so it seemed. The first inkling of a problem emerges when Remington announces that he’s “decided to run a marathon,” (and that’s just the beginning.) Shocked into disbelief, Serenata “had the sense, rare in her marriage, that she should watch what she said.” Serenata, who has just been forced by her bad knees to give up running, feels that Remington’s decision “coincides with a certain incapacity.” His “timing was cruel.” Serenata reacts badly; he calls her a bitch. The exchange is adversarial, and a line is drawn in the sand.

And it gets worse. He’s all togged up ready to go running:

Yet his getup was annoying by any measure: leggings, silky green shorts with undershorts of bright purple, and a shiny green shirt with purple netting for aeration–a set, its price tag dangling at the back of his neck. His wrist gleamed with a new sports watch. On a younger man the red bandanna around his forehead might have seemed rakish, but on Remington at sixty-four it looked like a costuming choice that cinemagoers were to read at a glance: this guy is a nut. In case the bandanna wasn’t enough, add the air-traffic-control orange shoes, with trim of more purple.

He only bent to clutch an ankle with both hands when she walked in. He’d been waiting for her.

So, fine, she watched.

I’ve read a lot of books about marriage problems, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that shows a disintegrating marriage through the lens of extreme exercise. Self-contained Serenata, who has always had a private, healthy respect for keeping in shape, cannot understand Remington’s “idiotically self-important” need to drive himself into a competitive event, and she’s horrified by Remington’s desire for praise. She doesn’t understand her husband’s obsession, and when the bank account begins draining thanks to high end equipment (a $10,000 bike) and a 1200 a month retainer for a pushy, obnoxious trainer named Bambi, Serenata discovers that she’s shoved to the sidelines. Her role is to scurry around, to cook and serve meals for the Tri training team and to cheer at the finishing lines. The situation, Remington with his new Tri-Club friends, and Bambi (Serenata should have kicked her in the rear right before shoving her out the front door and damn the consequences,) opens “a fissure between them that at their age shouldn’t have been possible.”

Remington and Serenata drift farther and farther apart, and suddenly they are not companions anymore. Of course, this is all stoked by Bambi who sneers at Serenata’s health issues, claiming that “exercise doesn’t wear you out,” and “limits are all in your head.” Bambi, and the club members believe that if you cannot do achieve a physical fitness goal, then you are a failure–a mental weakling. To Bambi, it’s mind over matter. And of course, this leaves Serenata in the Losers’ Corner.

At your age, Sera, you might consider an e-bike,” Bambi suggested. “I recommend plug-in models to older clients all the time. Keeps them on the road, even with, you know–bum joints.”

“Yes, I’ve considered one of those,” Serenata said, “But it seems more cost efficient to go straight to the mobility scooter.” 

Serenata has experience of sports injury and she is concerned that Remington is being pushed beyond his abilities. Unfortunately, Remington, who has “always been more suggestible” is infatuated with Bambi and anything Serenata says clashes with Bambi’s mantras. Yet while Serenata tries dishing out advice to Remington about avoiding injury, she, dreading and delaying knee surgery, doesn’t apply that same advice to her own situation. 

There are some marvellous scenes at the Marathons. These marathons attract all sorts, including “fat,out-of-shape bucket-list box-tickers” who, according to one woman, “cheapen what completing this distance means.” As the race takes shape, there’s a “distinctive subsection of the over-the-hill contestants  [who] began to exert a queasy fascination. All men in their seventies and eighties, they were lean to the point of desiccation, with limbs like beef jerky.”

The book may sound amusing, and, with its emphasis on extreme sports and fitness mania it could certainly have been written that way. While there are amusing scenes thanks to Serenata’s tart tongue, Shriver takes a dead-eyed look at the disintegration of the Alabasters’ marriage: Serenata’s spiraling rejection of Remington’s goals and Remington’s folly, neglect and emotional abandonment of his devoted wife. This is a richly textured book which examines how social media sharpens competitive training, the human desire for attention and praise, and what happens when one marriage partner goes off the rails. The novel asks: at what point does exercise become ‘unhealthy?’ Couch potatoes would remain that way unless challenged, but at what point does challenge become insane? The marathons here include all types: the young and vigorous and the aged “wizened immortals” with many of the spectators making snide comments.  Is the participation of the elderly, who cannot compete with those decades younger, heroic or misguided? I didn’t quite get the utterly charmless characters of Lucinda (Remington’s former boss ) or Bambi. They seemed caricatures rather than fully fleshed beings, and the book is marred as a result. Finally Serenata, for all her unemotional, rational approach to life, takes far too much shit (which is not a knock at the book). She needs to kick some rear ends. Starting with Valeria and Remington. 

Review copy

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