Divorce in Morningside
Hallelujah! at last, there is a novel about contemporary divorce that eschews shallow revenge-fantasy clichés of dream jobs, boytoys and boob jobs in favor of a thoughtful, balanced and gently humorous representation of the end of a marriage. Local author Jane McCafferty laudably transcends melodrama in “First You Try Everything” to marvel with unaffected wonder at the mysteries of the human heart.
Her protagonists, Evvie and Ben, were a couple of middle-class misfits from dysfunctional homes when they met in their youth and bonded over childhood scars. Nothing horrific—a philandering father in Ben’s family and a substance-dependent mother in Evvie’s—but enough to create a sense of emotional isolation that persisted until they found each other. Rejoicing in their mutual discovery, they fell in love, married, and melded their hopes, dreams and histories to create a cozy, nursery-like world for two in Pittsburgh’s Morningside neighborhood. For 16 years they shared a childless, freeform state of prolonged adolescence, in which “they’d been like travelers, even though they’d never gone anywhere.” They “set themselves apart… proud to be outside the mainstream”; happily operating a pushcart business and advocating animal rights while accompanied by a looping soundtrack of indie-rock anthems by which they defined themselves and their philosophy.
Happily that is, until Ben heard the siren song of senescence and, in a reversal of the usual midlife crisis, began to embrace suits and sales quotas, regular habits and square meals. Now he scorns precisely those qualities in his wife that he once found charming; exasperated by her inability to “grow up” and “get real,” and resentful of the pull of their shared past. He eventually succumbs completely to the temptations of conventional maturity when he finds them embodied in the physically fit form of a bewitchingly average single mom.
Thus ends their marriage, at least as far as Ben is concerned. For Evvie, however, it is a different story. Possessing both a “radical innocence” and an inclination towards fanaticism, she cannot accept the fact of Ben’s defection. True to the title, she tries everything to hang on to her husband; bringing him flowers, befriending his lover, and tragic-comically attempting seduction by climbing in his second-story window in pajamas and a football helmet. Finally, in desperation (and encouraged by the success of a bold romantic gesture leveled at her brother by an admiring co-worker) she resolves the question of a shared future once and for all by subjecting herself and Ben to the insane intrigues of a couple of thugs that she met on a bus.
Although Evvie’s lunacy may seem implausible to those who have never been similarly afflicted, her naïvete and soul-crushing pain are completely authentic. When Ben leaves her, her disbelief and devastation are palpably consuming:
She ran outside and sat on the front stoop. The skin on her arms was melting. Melting right off the bones. Her face was melting, too, like in a horror movie. She buried her hot face in the parka and held the skin of her cheeks tightly to hold it in place. He opened the door and stood behind her. “I really didn’t want this to be so dramatic,” he said coolly, a refined stranger with a well-modulated voice. “I wanted to talk like two adults facing down a really difficult situation.” What the —?
In a lesser book, Ben might come across as a callous, self-rewarding rat, but because the narrative alternates between both parties’ points of view, he is presented instead as a vulnerable individual motivated by an innate desire for “affiliation” and acceptance. In his own way, he is as surprised as Evvie by the turn his life has taken, the strength of his feelings, and the seeming inevitability of his decision. He is suffering, too, albeit not in the mind-bending manner of his wife, and is hurt that more people can’t relate to the difficulty of having to leave someone. Although he yearns for his new woman as “the great bold spirit of his future,” he nevertheless retains fond feelings for Evvie, “the way you love your old town as the train pulls out of the station.”
Not only is Ben not the villain, but remarkably, there are no villains at all in this scenario. Lauren, the Other Woman, is merely a good-natured realist who views love as “a practical thing,” a “state where everyone deserved to live.” She too has baggage, including a mouthy daughter, a dim-bulb ex-husband, and abandonment issues stemming from her own imperfect childhood. She doesn’t want to hurt Evvie or control Ben, she simply wants someone to have her back; a knee to squeeze, a hand to hold, and an opportunity to use “we” conversationally. Her neutral political views, small talk and “low expectations of others” lend her “a strange peace” and provide a refreshing contrast to the histrionic high ideals of Evvie, “who’d never been good at self-modulation.” Even Rocky and Bruno, the sinister “creative entrepreneurs” who capitalize on Evvie’s heartbreak, are essentially likable; a pair of incurable romantics on a mission to help the lovelorn “walk the long and winding road back to love.”
There may be no villains in this story, but there is absolutely a heroine in the form of sweet, befuddled Evangeline Muldoone, who loves to the point of madness, endures the suffering of saints and martyrs, risks her life, and ultimately sacrifices her heart’s desire for the sake of her beloved’s well-being. She releases the man but retains the love, going on to seek another, higher object for her affections.
Throughout this unusually forgiving tale, Ben & Evvie’s journeys away from each other are subtly equated with a broader quest for spiritual fulfillment, and supported by a cast of quirky, quasi–religious characters that includes a saintly dog, a handful of recovering alcoholics, a singing Korean missionary, and a mystical convenience-store clerk named Ranjeev.
The Muldoones are neither firm believers nor “hard-core atheist[s],” but there are clearly forces at work in their split greater than the ability of Evvie’s determined efforts to overcome them. For all of her efforts and all of her agony, it is Ben who experiences a coveted moment of grace. Woken in the night by an “overwhelming presence” and filled with a “feeling of gratitude, happiness and peace,”
He lay there, his mouth open, as if he could drink in whatever it was. What was this power that had come into the room to hold him in place? And if it really existed as a force, why didn’t it come every night? If it did, maybe more people would believe in God; that was the only way Ben could describe the depth of the sensation…. The world was so much more mysterious than he usually gave it credit for.
It takes a deft hand to draw a line from divorce to divinity, and Ms. McCafferty, of CMU’s English department, deserves high praise indeed for transfiguring a tale of ordinary heartache into one of universal love.