06/24/2013 12:51 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2013

How to Survive 40: A Summer Reading List

Heidi Legg

Forty is like nothing I expected. As I stumble through my first years of it and survey the landscape around me, I can say it's not for the weak and the hilarity of it, as I approach my fourteenth wedding anniversary this week, is not only confined to the movie bearing its name. This month alone, one friend discovered his wife was having an affair, another declared she was a lesbian leaving her husband and kids to fend for themselves, and one friend's spouse was flirting with disaster, a shuttle away. Add to that a wife who's taken up stripping, and I started to worry.

The incidents in isolation did not completely shock me but the pace in which they were stacked did. Is it the economy? Is it contagious? Or is this life in your 40s?

I was at a loss as I consoled my friends, in denial about my own reality, and called my mother. The thing you need to know is that my mom is pretty much central casting for June Cleaver. But when crisis hits, her one-liners are more like June Cleaver shaking a Bourbon. What did she offer? "People get a little crazy in their 40s."

That's it? Sensing my own midlife reckoning about to detonate, I needed something more to figure out what's going on and how to get through it.

Then one night lying in bed, trying to put some linear understanding to the unrest, I noticed all the spines of books littering my bedside table. It was as if my subconscious had been amassing the required reading list for "Marriage in your 40s."

Anna Karenina, Open Secrets, The Happiness Project and Nora Ephron's book, I Remember Nothing, Where did you go Bernadette, The Woman Upstairs, Engagements and Gone Girl already thumbed, devoured, waiting while preempting my reality. I know you're thinking Fifty Shades of porn would be faster and more useful. If only the sentences were more complicated to convince me they were useful. I thought I would share what I discovered under the sheets.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
I started with Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and imagined it's quiet grey and violet cover blending perfectly with the bedroom linens of my friend having the affair. Her life always as effortlessly coordinated as her part-time work that backs into school pickup. She exuded Pollyanna, until she fell for her colleague (intersperse with trainer, neighbor, reunion classmate.) I should have given her Fifty Shades of Grey instead of hoarding it. It might have satiated her torment and sexual cravings unlike Anna who lived out her own passionate tragedy. But that was Russia, circa 1800.

The whole affair reminded me people are fallible. It's not excusable or, as a result, permissible but it is a fact from which I work. It leaves room for everyone to be forgivable.

Open Secrets by Alice Munro
In Open Secrets, a collection of short stories, one heroine says, "I once heard somebody say, at a party, that one of the nice things about marriage was that you could have real affairs." While first appalled by what she heard, she later takes in her own lover and explains the open secret is when the confidant is no longer the spouse. It might be the late night email or Twitter friends, anyone but the actual person with whom you are married.

I've come to realize that forty is fertile ground for marriage complications. Many friends have spouses working a shuttle way and careers are getting complicated. Maybe it's a few days in NYC, or a week in California. The basic arrangement is the person away is said to be nose down at work with a business dinner in lieu of family dinner while the spouse at home wrangles the mini-tyrants and chicken nugget appetizers in exchange for snuggling and raising the kids. Some call this current economic trend, a "marriage extender" but after months of wine as a meal and the ability to star fish on your bed, someone is apt to get lonely.

Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron
Forty was starting to get me down but then I turned to Nora and she told me everything. She swooped in to convey exactly what to expect from shuttling careers, to the D word, to flops, to family legends. Her "Twenty-five things people have a shocking capacity to be surprised by over and over again" is worth her book alone.

I understand how great it feels to feel alive and I've often said, "Flirt with someone who has the same skin in the game." That's what the liberated 2012 marriage can handle as diversion, right? But Nora reminded me that Harry and Sally just can't be "friends." And once she set me straight, she reminded me to relax a bit, because I will remember nothing. Oh how I love Nora. How lucky we were to have her for a while.

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
Even owning Gretchen Rubin's New York Times' bestseller is a telltale sign of my own midlife wrangling. Let's not even begin with Where did you go Bernadette? Away, OK? Do you have a problem with that? Gretchen tells me to spend a month being nice to my husband. Fight Right, No Dumping headline the pages. Thank God, she admits it wasn't sustainable for her either.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
Claire in all her brilliance and good sense made me realize forty with marriage and kids is richer than the alternative. Nora Eldridge, her protagonist, lives alone and teaches at a private school, untethered from reality by sheer loneliness. And when her private inner life takes over things unravel and while that might be trippy for a weekend getaway, maybe my inner life is better as just that -- private.

The Engagements by Courtney Sullivan
Courtney takes on a voyeuristic journey through 80 years of marriage with five different couples focusing first on the an early feminist, a Sheryl Sandberg-type in the Mad Men advertising days named Frances Gerety, copywriter for the advertising firm. N.W. Ayer and Son. Gerety coined the famous "A Diamond is Forever" and Courtney takes us through romances from then to now, showing us that getting to forever can take very different paths.

After fourteen years of marriage and two kids, I have my own rubble. Between the career aspirations gone awry and marriage cracks you're madly filling while raising a family full of tantrums, throw up and chaos, its real life. And while these cautionary tales each gave me perspective, I realized forty is simply a rite of passage with survival as the end goal.

So what happens when it all starts to crumble? Everyone starts swimming hard for the shore, tugging limbs and dragging each other by the hair. And not only for the kids, which Nora says is a valiant reason if you can, but you swim for each other. You're doing backstrokes and sidestrokes and summersaults you never knew you could sustain, and that's when the beauty of marriage kicks in, assuming no one drowns. Although, the concept of Gone Girl might appeal to some...

The Practical Navigator by Nathaniel Bowditch
That's why I also think one should read The Practical Navigator, an American classic that comes with a companion lifejacket.