When I sat down a couple of years ago to write my second novel I was certain of only one thing: It was not going to end with a wedding.
A Better Man follows the story of Nick and Maya Wakefield, a married couple, together for 10 years with two small children, who find themselves not-so-suddenly on the bleak and windswept precipice of divorce. And unlike my first book, which chronicled the travails of an anxious single girl, A Better Man starts long after the dating angst has resolved itself and wedding cake crumbs have been swept away. It is the story of a marriage at what is arguably its most vulnerable point – the deep weeds of early parenthood. It's a time of life when each day can feel simultaneously crisis-ridden and frustratingly monotonous at the same time, when "love" equals untold amounts of hard labour – a time when the difficult question that hangs in the air is not "will they or won't they get together?" but "will they or won't they break up?"
Having entered this phase of life myself, the romantic stakes in my own relationship seemed suddenly so much higher, the everyday drama doubly fraught. Back in my unencumbered days I worried about things not working out with boyfriends because it would make me feel, well, sad. Today, as a wife and mother the idea of things "not working out" is about so much more than that. Financial stability, for one thing, and the disruption of the lives of innocents, otherwise known as our kids. Having crossed the rubicon into parenthood, the question of whether a marriage can be tested and last suddenly seemed far more dramatically interesting to me as a novelist than the question of whether it might happen in the first place.
Clearly, as we have seen from Flaubert to Updike, I'm not the only writer who feels this way. But something fresh is afoot when it comes to the way we write about marriage and divorce. A new wave of books about family life at different stages in modern experience have been published in recent years, to significant acclaim and sales. David Nicholls's Booker Prize-nominated novel Us: A Novel (a follow-up to his youthful love story One Day) examines a troubled marriage stumbling into its final act – the empty nest.
Like me, Nicholls found the shift from "dating novel" to "divorce comedy" was part of the natural progression of life – as he grew up, so did his subject matter.
"Having spent the early years of my career writing about dating, starting out, friendship, the post college years, that material has dried up or at least lost some of its sheen and it feels natural to write about what comes next," he told me in an e-mail interview this week. "I think that the day after the wedding is at least as interesting dramatically as the lead-up to it, and that was the motivation for Us really – to see how familiarity, domesticity, routine, parenthood, the daily concerns of work, affect romantic relationships."
A new crop of writers is exploring this subject matter in innovative ways and across genre, from critically lauded debuts such as Marissa Stapley's Mating for Life and Julia Fierro's Cutting Teeth (about a group of young parents from the same Brooklyn play group) to massive bestsellers such as The Rosie Effect and even Gone Girl – a novel about the hidden secrets of marriage if there ever was one.
What's awfully clear at this point is that the era of so-called "chick lit" is over and our collective cultural preoccupation with what academics call "the marriage plot" – that narrative mainstay of romantic comedy from Jane Austen to Helen Fielding – has waned for the time being. Instead, far more writers and readers are turning their attention to the aftermath of weddings, which is to say, the filthy, funny, often heartbreaking muck of real life.
Fierro, whose first novel, Cutting Teeth, was published by Macmillan last summer, says that for her, writing about marriage and family life was an attempt to understand the intensity of the period she had just lived through.
"Early parenthood both fulfilled and drained me, enlightened and baffled me," she told me recently. "I was really trying to understand how I felt about being a mother, and, most importantly, how it had changed me, and my relationship with my husband."
Similarly, with A Better Man, I wanted to write about what it feels like to be fulfilled beyond all expectation and yet oddly trapped at the same time – the paradox of modern family life. In my book, Nick pretends to be a perfect husband as a ruse to get a better divorce settlement when he finally leaves his wife. But in doing so he finds himself falling back in love with both Maya and family life. The idea at the heart of the novel is the same one that governs the success of most marriages: How can we learn to give our partners the best versions of ourselves – and when we do, is that who we truly are?
Novels about troubled unions are nothing new, of course. Writers as far back as Tolstoy and Henry James straight through to 20th-century greats such as Alice Munro, Richard Yates and James Salter have long tilled this fertile thematic soil. But in an era when so many of us feel increasingly disconnected, novels of struggling marriages are having a happy (if dysfunctional) new golden era. And according to Nicholls, that means less wedding cake, more marriage counselling. "There's comedy and romance to be had – but inevitably happy, faithful, mutually supportive marriages make for quite dull reading, so there's a natural desire on the part of the writer to make things messy, difficult, painful."
Welcome to new bad marriages, each one messed up in its own particular, poignant and eminently readable way.