The revival of a classic self-help book reveals some raw emotions in this canny novel by Schrank (Consent, 2002, etc.).
Published in 1971, Peter Herman’s Marriage Is a Canoe became the kind of ’70s self-help book that everybody seemed to own yet nobody seemed to take seriously, in league with Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Peter’s folksy, prescriptive memoir about the lessons his grandparents delivered about happy marriages made him well-off, and in 2011, it’s inspired Stella, a young editor at the book’s publisher, to find a way to boost sales: A contest in which a couple with marriage troubles wins a weekend with Peter to talk out their issues. Enter Emily, a whip-smart Brooklynite who grew up loving the book and whose marriage with Eli is on the rocks after he’s confessed to a recent infidelity. Schrank is remarkably deft at imagining a book that is largely New-Age hokum—his “excerpts” overwork the canoe metaphor—while remaining sympathetic to the power this kind of evergreen wisdom has. Much of what the novel wrestles with is how much relationships can be strengthened by simple advice and how much that advice provides license to avoid deeper problems. Schrank runs into trouble in the latter third of the novel as he works to balance Eli and Emily’s struggles (their “winner’s weekend” goes disastrously, of course) with Stella’s despairing efforts to save the contest (publishing industry insider baseball abounds), and Peter’s own romantic troubles as a widower become relatively underdrawn. But Schrank has firm command of the story, never letting the plot turns descend into farce, and the closing pages are a convincing portrait of how relationships shift in ways no self-help book can anticipate.
A wise imagining of modern-day love, unromantic but never cynical.