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A Mournful Mix Of 'Happiness' And Mathematics

In Lily Tuck's luminous fifth novel, I Married You For Happiness her first since winning the 2004 National Book Award for The News From Paraguay — a woman sits vigil at the bedside of her husband of 42 years, who has dropped dead of cardiac arrest while she's preparing dinner. Over the course of a single night and a full bottle of wine, her mind ranges over their life together, beginning with their meeting at a Paris cafe in the 1960s, when he was teaching math on a Fulbright scholarship and she worked in an art gallery.

Tuck, who lost her second husband, a lawyer (to whom this novel is dedicated), to cancer in 2002 after 25 years of marriage, reflects on marriage and loss, but I Married You For Happiness is not yet another memoir of grief. Her protagonist, Nina, a painter who especially prizes clarity in art, mulls over her imperfect but abiding marriage, her unexpected bereavement, and the unfathomability of her husband's nonexistence. What lifts this book above the mourning fray is the fact that she does this against the backdrop of the probability theories about which her husband, an MIT-trained mathematics professor, was forever lecturing her.

Talk about clarity! Tuck explains complex, paradox-riddled mathematical concepts with astonishing lucidity. These serve as an extended metaphor for the perplexing nature of time and chance. Binomial probability, for example, as demonstrated with coin tosses, reveals that "A chance event is not influenced by the events that have gone before it. Each toss is an independent event." To explain epistemic probability — probability based on intuition — Tuck cites the example of a turkey fed every morning for a year who comes to expect the same in perpetuity; but then, a week before Thanksgiving, the very person bringing the feed instead wrings its neck. The lesson: "You must try to expect the unexpected." Wisely, Tuck doesn't belabor parallels with the death of Nina's husband, who only two days before had played his weekly game of tennis, but we get the point.

Lily Tuck won the 2004 National Book Award for her novel <em>The News From Paraguay.</em>
Julie Thayer /
Lily Tuck won the 2004 National Book Award for her novel The News From Paraguay.

Tuck, the product of a peripatetic expatriate childhood, often writes about wealthy women comfortable in several languages and cultures whose lives are disrupted by loss or a move. On the surface, Nina's life with Philip seems perfect, with their Cambridge, Massachusetts home and vacations on European islands. But Nina's nocturnal recollections reveal disturbing marital dynamics in which her identity was gradually subsumed by that of her brilliant, strong husband.

Left dependent on Philip to a degree that their daughter, unmarried and financially independent at 35, finds reprehensible, Nina wishes "she could beat her breast and wail." Instead, she calmly recalls Philip's sometimes patronizing discourses on why he believed "in chance instead of cause and effect. The probable and not the inevitable," while she wonders who will mow the lawn and fix the banging shutter. Ironically, in claiming a night alone with her husband's body before making the necessary calls and arrangements, she manages to stop "the arrow of time [which] distinguishes the past from the future." Spare but deep, I Married You For Happiness coolly considers our "terror of the infinite."

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Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.