Louis Begley’s velvet pen flows once again in “Memories of a Marriage” – a marvelous little novel of upper-class manners and means.
Its plot is elementary – the book’s narrator, Philip, a novelist of some note, now in his twilight years, becomes reacquainted with Lucy, a rather flamboyant friend from the past. But the effect is penetrating as well as droll and, often, surprising.
For starters, Philip and Lucy, although they have traveled for decades in many of the same privileged circles, could not be more different.
“For much of my life,” Philip tells us, “I had dreaded admitting to myself or others that I was happy.”
Lucy believes she has had no such luck:“I have not had the life I had expected,” she laments, “or the life I deserved.”
And there it is: Lucy’s sense of entitlement, one clearly born of her heritage (and inheritance) and almost impossible, at this point, to fulfill. Or is it?
Begley keeps us guessing here, every sentence and every scene cloaked in a gentility befitting his book’s well-bred characters. Like his late fellow author Louis Auchincloss, Begley is an attorney as well as writer and wonderful observer of humankind (“Wartime Lies” and “About Schmidt” being the best known of his nine other novels).
In “Memories of a Marriage,” he is wily as well as riveting, leading a reader to believe that it is Philip’s marriage the book will relive. This was an apparently sublime union, marred by the early loss of the couple’s only child, Agnes, and, in recent years, Philip’s beloved wife, Bella, as well.
But no – it is Lucy’s marriage that will hold our attention, providing us with glimpses of a patrician class complete with pedigrees and acquisitions (human and otherwise) and lifelong trusts. Philip himself has three homes – apartments in Paris and New York and a country house in Connecticut.
But Lucy – Lucy De Bourgh Snow – seemingly has the means to alight wherever she chooses while living in New York at the moment and keeping a place in Rhode Island where her forebears were prosperous 18th-century ship owners.
That the De Bourgh fortunes have diminished over time does not seem to faze Lucy, who is known for saying, “losing your shirt is a relative concept. Everything depends on how many shirts you have left. We’ve still got many to go.”
Outspoken and overbearing (as is, significantly, the dowager Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”), Lucy spies Philip at a performance of the New York City Ballet – and descends upon him.
“Philip! My goodness...what’s the matter with you? Don’t you know me? I knew you right away, even with your back turned. Your hair is all white, it’s still cut too short, and your ears still stick out. I had no idea I’d changed so much. For God’s sake, I’m Lucy Snow. Lucy De Bourgh Snow.”
It is 2003 – or, as Philip delicately puts it, “not many days after George W. Bush’s astonishing announcement that the ‘mission’ had been accomplished.”
When he hears his name called, he turns to see “a tall slim lady in her late sixties or perhaps early seventies, strikingly good looking and turned out in a black suit I attributed to Armani...”
Philip immediately recalls Lucy, as a scintillating young woman living in Paris, introducing him to Thomas Snow – then a G.I. on leave, a corporal with the Seventh Army headquarters in Heidelberg. Thomas would go on to marry Lucy and become a “brilliant investment banker who made a pile of money, gave much of it away, and turned into a Wall Street pundit.”
But – despite his London School of Economics and Harvard Business School degrees – Thomas was below Lucy’s station. As Philip puts it, “in the De Bourgh context, it was no use. He was a townie. The son of a garage owner and a bookkeeper!”
In the intervening years, Philip heard, Thomas left Lucy, remarried and, sadly, died in “a ghastly accident.” Now Philip and Lucy, newly reunited, agree to have dinner – and it is at this point that Philip realizes that Lucy not only has lost her famous joie de vivre but is obsessed with the “monster” she claims Thomas became.
In one of the best lines anywhere, she declares, “You have to live with someone to realize you can’t stand them.” But she rambles. She doesn’t explain. And Philip, novelist that he is, finds that he must know: Lucy may well be the makings of a book!
“Prudence be damned,” he says. “I was determined to understand how the quirky but beautiful, charming and seductive young woman I had known had changed so, had become an embittered and aggressive shrew.”
His quest is a precise one, including return visits with Lucy, and new visits to such individuals as Thomas’ second wife, Jane; letter and phone communication with Thomas’ and Lucy’s grown son, Jamie, and – perhaps most notably – Thomas’ and Philip’s mutual friend, Alex van Buren.
Van Buren is a masterful creation here – boisterous, back-slapping and perfectly suited to his rarefied world, greeting Philip at his private club with, “we don’t see you here much. That is really too bad. Members prominent in the arts should lunch and dine at the club often and bring in talented youngsters of the right sort ... We need you super-gifted fellows but not in numbers that might make the rest of us uncomfortable.”
There are unanswered questions here, as there are in every life, but also a nagging feeling that Begley is somewhat unfair to Lucy, telling her tale solely through Philip’s eyes and letting him – when she confides delicious details of sexual trysts – get away with being both prurient and judgmental.
Indeed, Philip himself considers his motives here, telling a suspecting Lucy, “finding some aspects of yourself in a novel is a risk you run by palling around with a novelist – or merely allowing yourself to be in his field of vision.”
Then, backtracking, he tells himself, “if I did write the book neither she nor anyone else would recognize her or Thomas in my characters ...They’d be seeing a mosaic, made of slivers of glass or stone, some picked up as I went along and some I had fabricated. I don’t write romans à clef.”
Begley, as he enters his ninth decade, is particularly deft here at conveying how much loss and regret enter into an older writer’s thinking, starting with the stark, “Lucy was old; I was old; Thomas and Bella were dead.”
And he gives the best thought in “Memories of a Marriage” to another aging author – Bill Taylor, a friend of Philip’s in the book – who adds his own take on Thomas for Philip’s notes, then posits, “one learns a great deal more from novels than from life.”
Memories of a Marriage
By Louis Begley
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
188 pages, $25.95
Karen Brady is a former News columnist.