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BookMark: "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" By Nancy McCabe

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Imagine willingly marrying someone you weren’t in love with or even remotely attracted to. Unraveling the why’s and how’s of that mess is the subject of Nancy McCabe’s new memoir, “Can This Marriage be Saved?” 

As McCabe explores this deeply personal issue, she offers insight into the changes in cultural norms since the 1970s, childhood trauma and alienation, and how class and religion guide people’s lives. She also describes how our own self-narratives, which define what we think we can do and what we think we deserve, can both shape and limit our outcomes.

McCabe’s book overcomes a significant literary challenge. On the first page, she introduces the big climatic twist—a deeply unfortunate wedding the reader knows is a bad idea. With the major action established early on, a lot of pressure is put on the quality of McCabe’s writing to keep the reader engaged. 

Emotion is very present in McCabe’s writing. Even though I knew I was headed to a grim place, and every step along the way would be marked by tragedy, that insight, word-crafting, and humor kept me engaged and eager to return to the book night after night. McCabe balances the retelling of her life with an insight informed by hindsight that lets us know, eventually, things will turn out all right.

“Can This Marriage be Saved?” was originally written as a series of essays. But the variation in writing styles between chapters gave me energy. The book jumps around in time, chapters alternate between first and second person, and the tense alternates between past and present. Readers are able to look at the timeline of McCabe’s early life from multiple perspectives without it feeling stale or overly-trodden. Each chapter begins with a quiz modeled after the type of relationship self-help quizzes you might find in “Ladies' Home Journal.” These quizzes are a graceful vehicle for humor and reflection. They also work as overtures to highlight the themes in the chapter.

Many of the themes in “Can this Marriage be Saved?” revolve around the subject of alienation. Some are universal, but others were unfamiliar to me. McCabe has a gift, though, of laying out her upbringing, the cultural standards of her day, and the psychology that she operated under. Through her eyes, I was able to gain insight into an existence effected by unequal gender dynamics that my privileges preclude me from experiencing.

While I’d recommend this book to anyone, I think it would be especially relevant to college freshmen since they are about the same age as the author in most of her book. The ways in which identity is informed and re-invented, and how our unconscious power and interpersonal dynamics affect other people, would be particularly timely insights.

Reviewer Ben Drain is an IT technician at Schlow Centre Region Library.