Can This Marriage Be Saved?

Zeruya Shalev
Husband and Wife
Grove/Atlantic

We walk in at the end of things--years after the affair, after the accident, long after these two who have been lovers since their teens have twined so closely they do not know whether they love each other. Udi and Na'ama, the characters at the center of Zeruya Shalev's novel Husband and Wife, are both in their 30s now and their daughter Noga is 10. Their relationship has become a knotted chain of resentments and failed expectations, of a desperate need for each other and for independence. Not so different from many relationships, really. The only difference is the clarity with which we see it through the novelist's eyes.

One morning Udi's body decides it has absorbed all the stress it can and his limbs start to freeze--his legs stretch useless in front of him on the bed and he cannot lift his arms. Na'ama, strangely calm as she takes her husband to the emergency room, wonders, "Is this the moment I always knew I would not be able to escape, the moment that breaks life in two, after which nothing is the same as it was before...?" The moment turns into one long summer that breaks her life in two. The doctors decide Udi's illness is psychosomatic and Na'ama turns for help to a Tibetan healer, who warns them, "Sometimes it can be dangerous to get well too quickly." Meanwhile, all the cracks in their neglected marriage become crevices too deep to patch.

Na'ama tells the whole story from her perspective and at first it is hard not to blame Udi--so cold! so distant! so self-absorbed! Maybe even a little crazy. But soon Na'ama's voice starts to sound shrill and self-righteous, desperate for affirmation. Blame becomes meaningless in a relationship that seems simply doomed.

Shalev describes all this in languorous sentences that stretch out in the heat, dragging along ands, buts, and ifs that make up one long contradictory thought. She picks out the minutiae of Na'ama's psychological world like a cinematographer slow-panning a room. Every conflicting emotion is named and expressed.

Shalev's first novel, Love Life, won praise for the complexity and accuracy of its psychology, for reaching universal human truths, and she clearly has not lost that gift. Although Husband and Wife is set in Jerusalem, this is not an Israeli novel the way it might be imagined by an American audience. The violent turmoil in the country does not even lurk in the background; religion and ethnicity are barely factors. Na'ama and Udi could be any couple who have let their resentments and tiny wounds fester too long.

Whether it is indeed too late to save their marriage we'll never know. Just as we walk in late in the story, we walk out before it is truly over. Shalev, a little jarringly, waits until the very last sentence to insert a note of uncertainty. As Na'ama suspected, nothing is the same as it was before, but we don't learn exactly how it will be.

 
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