Alexandra Marshall discusses Something Borrowed and The Court of Common Pleas
Something Borrowed is a story about marriage—and in fact it takes place during the weekend of a wedding—but isn't the novel really about a divorce? Why did you decide to tell it this way?
AM: Because in America today, marriage and divorce are joined like the two sides of a coin. And so, because my generation is so famously characterized by its 50% divorce rate, for us—and consequently also for our children—it's quite literally an either/or situation. That is, either (if we didn't divorce) we wonder What if we had? Or (if we did divorce) we wonder What if we hadn't?
So, in other words, there's no one who hasn't thought about it?
AM: Yes, exactly. And, therefore, it's a preoccupation of the culture at large, since the generation on either side is affected as well.
And are you offering a solution?
AM: No, I'm merely lifting up the problem so it can be looked at sympathetically, with concern for everyone's situation. The specific dilemma I'm writing about concerns the groom's parents, who are brought together for the rehearsal dinner for the first time since their divorce 15 years before. But even though they're each contentedly remarried, and each to a good person, in fact they're forced to confront the thing that had been left unresolved between them.
And what was that?
AM: The love they'd had for each other. The passion.
That sounds like a serious complication, especially for a divorced couple to have in the middle of their son's wedding.
AM: Yes, but for each of their spouses it's an unexpected—and unwelcome—problem as well. And of course it's complicated for their children too. The point is, it's not simple because—even though this is a novel—as the creator of these characters I presume them to be real. In real life, it couldn't possibly be simple, so I want my novel to be as necessarily complex as real life would be.
But wouldn't such "reality" undermine the passion and make the story un-romantic, even anti-romantic?
AM: I don't think so. I'd say Something Borrowed is, and deliberately so, a true dictionary-defined romance: "an ardent tale of two people overpowered by an idealized sexual love."
But it's not at all a "Romance" novel. What's the difference?
AM: Here it continues into the morning after, so to speak. There are actions, and there are consequences.
And those are?
AM: Feelings. And there's no one in this novel whose feelings don't matter.
So everyone is held accountable for their actions, as well as for the effect on others?
AM: Everyone is shown to have more than one way of acting and reacting. Because people are capable of behaving at their best as well as at their worst.
And is it fair to say that you seem to be drawn to situations that bring out the worst?
AM: Yes, absolutely. That's what makes a story interesting, I think. But of course I'm also trying to enable the best to be brought out as well.
And so, is this how you would also characterize your new novel, The Court of Common Pleas? As a worst-case scenario/best-case scenario?
AM: Yes! The difference is that, this time, the problem is one the main characters were unaware they had. So first it has to surface, and it's the surprise of this discovery that becomes the thing that really throws them off-balance. The discovery is when both the husband and the wife see that what they had each been envisioning for their next "empty nest" stage is what makes them radically incompatible for the first time in their seemingly solid 20-year marriage. He is a 63 year-old judge approaching mandatory retirement age, and the sudden loss of a younger gifted colleague has renewed the pain of other, ancient griefs, and has made him want to take advantage of the opportunity of leisure to travel the world with his wife. But at the same time, she, who is 49 and a longtime nurse, has been motivated to apply to medical school. When she gets accepted, and must then decide what to do, they will be forced to confront their differences. The process, needless to say, is painful.
And so no happy ending?
AM: Well, let's just say that it's what I'm always working toward in my novels. Mostly, however, I'm content with what I determine to be the right ending, the truest that can be reached. That's really the best that can be hoped for, isn't it?
Is that what you want to suggest with the title The Court of Common Pleas?
AM: Yes. Like a judge in a courtroom, I want to resolve the human dilemma at the heart of the novel by finding a fair solution that everyone can live with. In addition to this meaning of a court's deliberation to arrive at resolution, "court" evokes courting—expressing and winning affection—and so it implies a strategy for gaining love or sexual favors. So it also suggests risking a negative outcome, as in courting disaster.
Then what about "Common?" And what about "Pleas?"
AM: "Common Pleas Court" is the name for the general trial court in the state of Ohio (which has the same meaning as "Superior Court" in California or "Supreme Court" in New York) that hears all felony and some civil cases. The word pleas—please—supplies the anguish, the fear of potential disaster, and a petitioning to avert it. And common, needless to say, means basic or shared. What the term means for the novel is a way to describe a very common problem, especially for the boomer generation: when men marry, or remarry, women who are considerably younger, what happens when these women reach their own prime? How do the men cope with such change? And how do these marriages fare?
It sounds like what you're really asking is: do they survive, or don't they?
AM: Yes, but the real issue is the how and the why they either do or don't. I'm seeking to explore the experiences of both Audrey and Gregory with an equal sympathy, but as in a courtroom drama there is a compressed time frame and a story with a definite beginning, middle, and end. The discovery these two make—and the reader makes—is that the ability to change is embedded within the characters, rather than imposed from without, and that they are a lot more adaptable than they thought.
They learn to change?
AM: Yes. The Court of Common Pleas is a novel about the requirements of, and the opportunities in, the capacity to change.