In the post-marriage era, what happens to the marriage plot? The marriage rate halved between 1991 and 2019, but fiction can’t shake its fondness for the will they/won’t they question, for love triangles and dilemmas. In her second novel, Naoise Dolan updates the form for the 21st century, recognising that for the perpetual teenagers of the 2020s, a wedding is just an arbitrary date before which you have to decide whether or not you want to stay with your partner.
That decision is the driving force of The Happy Couple. Luke, a 28-year-old Londoner living in Dublin, gets engaged to his concert pianist girlfriend, Celine, though he’s unfaithful to her, and has been since the beginning of their relationship. Various friends and exes gather to watch and interfere – including Luke’s ex and best friend/best man, Archie, who still pines after the university boyfriend who couldn’t or wouldn’t commit. Celine, we begin to realise, knows deep down that Luke is flaky, but won’t admit it. As the wedding approaches, what had seemed to each of the characters like the inevitable outcome starts to look rather less secure.
The usual milestones of a year-long engagement – the engagement party, the night before the wedding – provide the book’s structure. Its texture comes from miscommunication: the slippage between what people want, what they think they want and what their friends think they want. Each of the novel’s five sections is narrated from the point of view of one of the main characters: Celine (‘The Bride’), her sister, Phoebe (‘The Bridesmaid’), Archie (‘The Best Man’), Luke (‘The Groom’) and their friend Vivian (‘The Guest’). This allows Dolan to make the most of the moments when her characters misunderstand one another. At times the device is explicit: ‘Neither of us is neutral,’ Luke thinks about Celine, ‘so believe whoever you want.’ Archie and Luke’s break-up is played out first in Archie’s memory, then in Luke’s. ‘That was fine by Luke. Everything was fine by Luke,’ Archie thinks, but we learn from Luke that things weren’t fine for him: ‘A moronic part of me had been hoping he’d beg and plead and say, no, Luke, I need you.’ What Archie takes for an unbothered lack of commitment – Luke goes to Dublin for two months without telling him – Luke figures as a desperate plea for affirmation. Reading the book involves a continuous process of readjustment.
The way these people behave isn’t their fault, Dolan argues: each of them is following a programme set in early childhood. Dolan is interested in the way traditional gender dynamics, often absorbed from the media, influence and even predetermine people’s relationships. Celine and Luke’s trajectory is familiar enough. After meeting at a party, they spend a few months hooking up in a casual (or pretend-casual) way before having The Talk and agreeing to ‘date each other properly’ at a ‘large relaxed brunch place in the Liberties’. Cue flat, cat and engagement ring. Celine, whose perspective opens the book, can’t help thinking there’s something played-out about the whole thing. In one chapter Dolan lays out a timeline of all the events that led Celine to believe marrying a man was necessary:
Celine McGaw exposed to the following:
Books where women date or marry men (378)
Books where women date or marry women (0)
Films and TV shows where women date or marry men (561)
Films and TV shows where women date or marry women (2 – Friends, Sex and the City; in both it’s a subplot played for laughs)
Drawing a line from TV to real life, Dolan adds:
Celine McGaw begins dating Luke Donnelly.
On their third date, Luke ‘warns’ Celine that he doesn’t want anything serious. Celine hadn’t hitherto wanted anything serious either, but now she panics and scrambles to win him over.
She has misunderstood Luke, of course. ‘My assumption was I’d fuck it up,’ he tells us, ‘so I thought I’d say up front: I’ll fuck it up. Except I didn’t put it that way. I said: “I don’t want anything serious.”’ Celine sees Luke’s fear of commitment as part of a wider pattern of conversation between men and women in straight relationships, a power game the woman is never going to win. Luke cottons on later: ‘In those early days, I was the boss. This truly wasn’t obvious to me at the time.’
Celine knows the deficiencies of heterosexual romance. In a previous relationship, with Maria, a fellow conservatory student, she was shocked to discover that she was not incapable of orgasm. ‘Two minutes. It took two minutes. She could forgive men everything but this.’ But Celine does forgive men, at least to the extent of breaking up with Maria and getting with Luke. Things would probably be simpler and more rewarding with a woman, but Dolan is clear about why she stays with Luke: ‘She’s just been carefully taught.’
Is this really the only option in 2023? Celine seems unusually gullible, and the idea that the Friends effect would persist until the age of 26, especially in the internet era, is unconvincing. Phoebe, Celine’s lesbian younger sister, offers an alternative. At the engagement party, when Celine tries to explain that Luke ‘kept her sane’, Phoebe ‘blinked, then asked if Celine saw Luke as a mindfulness app’. Phoebe hated cello and Spanish lessons and dropped out of UCD after a term: she ‘had only ever wanted to have a good time’. Weighing up the pros and cons of cutting the bullshit (her narrative contains lots of two-column lists), she decides that although Celine’s self-deception requires more ‘cognitive energy’ than her own determined hedonism, it doesn’t produce better results. What neither of them seems to want is clarity: ‘You don’t always need the full story,’ Celine says. Accordingly, Phoebe refrains for most of the book from revealing where Luke disappeared to on the night of the engagement party, though this has less to do with her character than with Dolan’s need to keep the reader guessing.
In Exciting Times, Dolan’s first book, the choice presented to bisexual women – surrender to the world’s expectations and get with a man, or follow your desires and risk forfeiting power and ‘normality’ – is the central moral issue. There is never any real doubt that the protagonist, Ava, will eventually choose to ignore the world’s expectations. In The Happy Couple there’s more suspense, and more confusion.
Luke decides that Celine has reduced him to a ‘concept’ in her mind: ‘Ask Celine to describe me, she’ll give you the vaguest adjectives. “Handsome” or whatever. She can’t tell you that I slouch, or that I bring a brown satchel to work.’ The listening and caring that Celine takes for granted, Luke sees as a form of unrewarding labour. ‘She’s not interested in me,’ he says. ‘She’s interested in her own mental activity that my presence happens to prompt.’ To him, concreteness, not abstraction, is the basis for love. ‘I can hate the idea of my relationship with Celine. But if I like to feel her skin through her dress’s embroidered slits while lemon tea brews in her Mozart mug – then I’ll stay.’ Dolan implies a hierarchy between these two versions of partnership, and Luke’s feelings for Celine seem more real.
There is concreteness, too, in the descriptions of some of the novel’s peripheral characters: in particular, Celine’s Aunt Maggy and Uncle Grellan, who live in London. ‘I’m dusting the birds,’ Maggy says on the phone. ‘The birds were Maggy’s Waterford Crystal swans, plus a few outliers: hawk, eagle, pigeon. Grellan had once made the mistake of buying Maggy a Tipperary sparrow. She would accept the species, but it had to be Waterford. Give money to Tipperary? Would she fuck.’ The combination of knick-knack collecting, extreme houseproudness and a recognisable idiolect make Maggy, in this short exchange, seem alive. Luke comments on Grellan’s use of language: ‘There’s more trees in Hampstead and less Irish … and no bastúns calling you a black rabbit,’ Grellan says. ‘So I legged it over when fiscals allowed.’ ‘I had to look up “bastúns calling you a black rabbit” … but I enjoyed the sentence before I knew,’ Luke thinks.
By contrast, the main characters often seem generic. Archie, flamboyantly gay and possibly addicted to drugs, dresses nicely and affects a Wodehousian, ‘“ironically” plummy’ vocabulary to hide his insecurity about being half-Indian (‘Rather’; ‘old brick’). Phoebe, the Gen Z dropout, isn’t very happy, which we know because she bellows ‘Play Mitski!’ at a DJ and Googles ‘things like “wildfires europe” and “heat wave crop failure famine” and “why am i lonely” and “why do i hate existing” and “how many painkillers to die”.’
That people are often perceived as types seems to be part of the novel’s point. Here is Archie looking Celine over the first time they meet: she was ‘short, plain-faced, dressed in taupe; the soul of inoffence’. Later, Celine runs into Luke at the airport and isn’t sure if it’s him: ‘Black coat, black shoes – that could be anyone. Running his hand through his hair – lots of people did that.’ It is in keeping with the novel’s desire to say something about male-female relations in general that Celine and Luke ‘could be anyone’. But specificity, Dolan has already suggested, is the bread and butter of relationships. And a lack of specificity creates a problem not only for the relationships between characters but for the reader’s relationship with them too.
Sometimes the characters seem little more than mouthpieces for Dolan’s takes on things like the patriarchy. When Luke rants about the phrase ‘it’s also very funny’ in book blurbs, ‘as if humour were an afterthought and not the central force that prevents us from killing a) each other, and b) ourselves’, or when Vivian’s job at Tate Britain is qualified with ‘the working conditions are dreadful, and recently drove the staff to strike,’ the narratorial mask has slipped a bit. In Exciting Times, Ava’s status as a disaffected outsider in a Hong Kong populated by clueless rich Brits allowed Dolan to showcase her observational wit: ‘Victoria ushered me over to her “other” Irish friend, as though she’d had each of us imported at the other’s request.’ It’s less convincing when wry remarks come from five supposedly different characters.
The competing narratives are designed to demonstrate that no one knows exactly what’s going on in a relationship, not even its protagonists. But it seems like a missed opportunity that, rather than increasing the mystery of the central relationship, the proliferation of perspectives is used to pile up evidence that allows the mystery to be solved. We get both Archie and Luke’s views of their failed relationship, as well as Vivian’s and Phoebe’s takes; we, the readers, end up with the fullest possible explanation of why Archie and Luke were never going to work. Celine discovers that Luke is in London when he is supposed to be in Dublin. Is he cheating on her again? No: we learn in Phoebe’s section that he was having an innocent, if sub rosa, drink with Maria.
And then there are the teasing hints that unexpected things may happen – before we’re invariably let down. In the lead-up to the wedding Archie and Luke have a final confrontation, and Dolan presents us with three possible ways it could go. They fight; they part, sadly but wisely; they are interrupted by the phone ringing. Each option is narrated as if it really happened, then we get this: ‘The first outcome was possible. So was the second. But with her ear close to the door … Vivian heard the following.’ It’s Celine calling. At the last minute, Luke is relieved of his need to decide about the wedding, and so is the reader, about the story. We teetered for a second on the cliff edge of a more experimental novel before being yanked back to the safety of realism.
In the final chapters, Celine takes a walk in the park and thinks about trying polyamory; it’s typical of this book that its most daring moves take place in the realm of the imagination. Back in the real world, Archie offers Instagram-caption reflections about having done ‘boyfriend things without being the boyfriend’. Perhaps, like Celine’s beige attire, this is the simple message: we stick to what is safe, unless we really can’t any more. But it shouldn’t be this hard to tell the difference between an exposé of the safe option and the thing itself.
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