Wednesday, February 17, 2016


The Happy Marriage, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Melville House, 2016, 277 pp (translated from the French by Andre Naffis-Sahely, published in France by Editions Gallimard, 2012)
Summary from Goodreads: In The Happy Marriage, the internationally acclaimed Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun tells the story of one couple—first from the husband’s point of view, then from the wife’s—just as legal reforms are about to change women’s rights forever.

The husband, a painter in Casablanca, has been paralyzed by a stroke at the very height of his career and becomes convinced that his marriage is the sole reason for his decline.

Walled up within his illness and desperate to break free of a deeply destructive relationship, he finds escape in writing a secret book about his hellish marriage. When his wife finds it, she responds point by point with her own version of the facts, offering her own striking and incisive reinterpretation of their story. 
My Review:
I have made a goal this year to read more literature written in countries outside the English speaking world. Tahar Ben Jelloun was born and raised in Morocco, then began to live and write in Paris after attending The Sorbonne. He is bilingual in Arabic and French but writes in French because to him Arabic “is a sacred language, given by God in the shape of the Koran, it is intimidating—one feels very small in front of this language.” (

I had read his most well known novel, The Sand Child, some years ago and was struck by a style of story telling that felt foreign to me, but elicited a strong emotional reaction. I realized then how various are the ways stories are told in different cultures and thus how various are the ways life can be lived and approached, just on one little planet.

In The Happy Marriage, perhaps Ben Jelloun is giving us a look at marriage through Moroccan eyes, inclusive of both those who live in the country and those who emigrate to France, as many Moroccans have done. The marriage in his novel is in crisis due to  patriarchal views held by the husband, the large difference in age and class between husband and wife, and the relentless encroaching of struggles by women the world over for equal rights.

The book opens a few months after the husband, a famous painter, has suffered a massive stroke. Mostly paralyzed and unable to speak, he is in despair over not having finished his life’s work. He blames the stroke on his wife and their increasingly violent arguments even though he is overweight and had been diagnosed with hypertension some years ago.

The first section is called “The Man Who Loved Women Too Much” and is the painter’s account of his life as told to and recorded by a close friend. This man has had much success as a painter and has been a continuous womanizer since even before his marriage. He thinks quite highly of himself and relates his amorous liaisons contrasted with the recriminations his wife pours on his head.

As I read I began to realize that the painter is both an unreliable narrator as well as a man who feels it is his privilege to live as he pleases, have affairs, travel the world and hoard his money, as long as he gives his wife enough to run the household. They have children whom she is tasked with raising. All he wants from them is their love and adoration.

Also, though the marriage was not arranged and supposedly entered into with love on both sides, the wife is much younger and comes from a small, impoverished Moroccan village. The painter wanted a woman to give him children and the wife wanted to move up in class and affluence. Their two families have never gotten along and this class conflict is a virulent source of trouble for the couple.

One of my favorite novels of 2015 was Lauren Groff’s Fatesand Furies. Ben Jelloun has used a similar structure for his book with a section from the husband’s viewpoint followed by the wife’s. Also similar are the husband’s obliviousness to the plight of his wife and the wife’s anger over that plight. Different here is the anger exhibited by the wife. Shortly after the birth of their first child she became aware of his infidelities and his stinginess with money and made no secret about her fury. Also different is how entertaining Ben Jelloun manages to be even while the couple wage their battles.

In the second section called ‘My Version of Events,” the wife has discovered and read the manuscript of her husband’s life story. She states, “Before giving you my version of events, I must warn you that I’m nasty. I wasn’t born that way, but when people attack me, I defend myself by any and all means.” Her rage and her willingness to spy on the painter, even to picking the lock to his safe, are beyond bounds. Surely all women get mad at their husbands and dream of ways to retaliate but this one goes ahead and does it! Even so, the husband holds most of the power except for one crucial point.

Though he has told her he wants to end the marriage, she refuses to agree and manages to outwit him with his lawyers. A stalemate of almost a year ensues. Then comes an unexpected ending, so unexpected that my admiration for the author’s insight and sense of irony felt betrayed. On rereading the ends of both partners’ stories though, the admiration returned and increased. Marriage is as fluid as any other aspect of life. It succeeds or fails due to the personalities involved no matter the society or culture. If there is any hope in the novel, it is that a woman empowered has options, even in a fundamentalist country.

(The Happy Marriage is available by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)


  1. Very interesting review. I have heard of this author but have not read any of his work. Your comparison to Fates and Furies, also one of my favorites from last year, intrigues me. I think I will have to investigate further!

    1. Just know that it is not at all an American story.

  2. I liked your review, Judy, and even before you mentioned Fates and Furies I recognized the structure. I'm glad to know that the author regained your admiration after re-reading both accounts. Which one did you like best?

    1. I would have to say Fates and Furies because I could relate more to that wife than the one in The Happy Marriage. Also because it was written by a woman.

  3. I sort of sympathize with the wife even though she is nasty and I haven't read their stories. And I want to read Fates & Furies this year. !

    1. I might have misunderstood Carmen's question. If she meant which character did I like best in The Happy Marriage, all I can say without spoilers is, you'd have to read the book. I look forward to your thoughts on Fates and Furies, Susan.

  4. I have heard of this author but have not read any of his work. Tks for sharing