05/11/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Seeking Novels with Strong Single Characters, Matrimania Not Included

Over at my Living Single blog at Psychology Today, I received this request for book recommendations:

Hi Bella, I would love to read some fiction, contemporary or otherwise, that gloriously depicts the life of someone who is enjoying themselves, fully engaged, life full of people, and not focused on getting married or saving a marriage. Perhaps it could even have the theme of how marriage can work to limit a life by closing down opportunities to really get to know many different people. How without the consideration of a deeply tied in partner someone might be freer to pursue a path than they otherwise might. Stuff like that. [From Laurie in Ithaca]

I'm always looking for fiction that is not matrimaniacal, so I think Laurie's request for suggestions is a fabulous one. So, to everyone out there, do you have any suggestions? Also, if you know any voracious readers or book industry people with this sort of knowledge or literature majors or professors or anyone else who may have some nominations, it would be great if you would forward this post to them. Post a note about your favorites to the comments section here or at the Living Single post, or email them to me and I'll add them. I sometimes do reviews of books that are sent to me, but I don't just write about the ones I like. If a book is guilty of singlism or matrimania, I'll make fun of it.

I'll post just one of my own suggestions here. It is a book filled with intriguing unmarried characters, though not exactly of the sort that Laurie described. The novel is Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer. It is one of those books I started reading because I like the author, only to discover that it was also full of some great insights about single life. Two examples come from the character Lusa, who was widowed very young:

"Lusa had been amazed at how quickly her status had changed: being single made her either invisible or dangerous. Or both, like a germ. She'd noticed it even at the funeral, especially among the younger ones, wives her own age who needed to believe marriage was a safe and final outcome."

"She [Lusa] understood with some chagrin that she'd accepted the family's judgment of Jewel as a child and not a woman, simply because she was manless."

I've found in my own reading experiences that I sometimes begin a novel with great hopes, only to feel let down. Vivian Gornick described a similar experience, and I wrote about it in Singled Out. (References are in the book.)


The essayist Vivian Gornick once described her reflections upon turning the last page of a novel she had been reading:

"I'd thought it a fine piece of work, resonant with years of observation about something profound, but it struck me as a small good thing, and I remember sitting with the book on my lap wondering, Why only a small good thing? Why am I not stirred to a sense of larger doings here?"

The novelist, Gornick concluded, sold herself and her characters short by accepting unquestioningly the transformative power of romantic love. When the married woman in the novel faces that "crucial moment when she's up against all that she has, and has not, done with her life," she believes that love is the answer. The character's quest for erotic passion, her "yearning to dive down into feeling and come up magically changed," is what made the novel a small good thing instead of something truly big and bold and beautiful and new. The woman in the story sought romance in an affair, but the novel would have been just as diminished if she had looked to a first love or a second marriage as the way to understand her life, redeem it, or fill it with meaning.

Novels that are constructed around romantic love, Gornick believes, are leaning on convention and nostalgia, rather than standing upright on the sturdier and more ennobling ground of reality and discovery. I think that too uncritical an embrace of the mythology of marriage and singlehood is similarly limiting of the real lives that we lead, regardless of whether we are, or wish to be, single or coupled. If we take seriously the notion that the only good adult life is the one that begins with marriage and continues with children, if we focus so intensively on our sexual partner and our children that we fail to appreciate all of the other people and pursuits that might otherwise brighten our lives, then we have let the mythology of romantic love ask too much of us and too little of us.


Click here to read about other nominations. Looking forward to hearing yours. Feel free to suggest short stories and other genres as well as novels.