When Carmen Garrett's husband dies, his widow feels nothing but relief.
Plenty of women dislike their husbands. But instead of keeping this fact a secret -- instead of pretending to herself or others with half-truths or fake smiles -- Carmen Garrett, protagonist of Minneapolis author Ann Bauer's new book, tells it like it is: The death of her husband, Jobe, the thing she has been waiting for, brings to her at last "a still, nearly painful relief."
It's this kind of blunt honesty that makes "The Forever Marriage" as compelling as its protagonist Carmen is contemptible. It's also what caused Bauer to wonder whether it would ever be published.
Despite the acclaim received by Bauer's first novel, "A Wild Ride Up the Cupboards" (2005), editors were not enthusiastic about Carmen -- a woman who unapologetically takes lovers, often resents her three children (one with Down syndrome) and wishes her husband dead.
Thankfully for readers, however, Overlook Press saw the need for people to meet Carmen and recognized Bauer's superbly crafted story of a woman who, like so many of us, has spent too much time wishing for what she doesn't have, and not enough time appreciating what she does. Bauer and "The Forever Marriage" also poignantly and powerfully illustrate the great and often tragic ironies of life when, just weeks after Jobe dies of lymphoma, Carmen's current lover Danny feels, during sex, a "comet made of stone" and Carmen is diagnosed with breast cancer -- something she miserably wonders, aloud, whether Jobe implanted in her before he died, and then, sharply, chastises herself for thinking.
As readers learn early in "The Forever Marriage," Carmen dislikes more than she likes -- and she often painfully, heartbreakingly dislikes herself the most: "'Did you?' she asks silently. 'Did you plant this thing to teach me a lesson? Did you know how I felt about you when you were alive?' But there was nothing out there. No answer. Certainly not Jobe. She shook her head and got out of bed. This was ridiculous: fear had turned her into an idiot."
It's this kind of vulnerability that makes Carmen -- who for her actions and attitudes should be completely unlikable -- a sympathetic and very real character who, through Bauer's stark and quietly beautiful prose, comes to life on the page. She's imperfect, no doubt. But through her attempts to understand her husband's death and the future of herself and her children, readers receive from Bauer and "The Forever Marriage" a perfect read.
Cindy Wolfe Boynton is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and writing instructor.