Tenderness, Profanity and Humanity in “Foreverland”

Imagine for a moment that you are talking to a friend who is recommending her favorite restaurant. She eats there all the time! It is such a great place! You should totally try it! You’re curious, so you ask a few questions:

How’s the food?

Average, I guess, she says. Sometimes it’s terrible. But every once in a while I get something that I really like.

What’s the decor like?

Oh, it’s a mess. I mean, the one booth in the back is good, all the springs still inside the cushion! Watch your step in the bathroom, though.

Is it affordable?

Not at ALL! I regularly spend money I don’t even have to eat there!

At some point in this exchange, you would likely stop her, maybe with a concerned shake of the head. You would ask her: Why? Why would you think I would ever want to eat at such a restaurant?

Now imagine that she is somehow able, in just a few more sentences, to convince you that yes, actually, this restaurant does, in fact, sound good! If you, like me, are thinking that such a feat would be impossible, please consider reading Heather Havrilesky’s Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage.

Havrilesky, known for her “Ask Polly” advice column (formerly in New York magazine’s The Cut and now on Substack), has produced a collection of essays on marriage that achieves the impossible. It insists on the hard, complicated truths of being in a long-term relationship, revealing the ugly realities so rarely discussed: the fear of being trapped forever with someone you don’t even like, the vulnerability of sharing your emotions, the disgusting noises an aging human body can make. Havrilesky is self-deprecating, revealing her own dramatic flaws as she runs down the failings of her husband, Bill. But she also gushes in a teenaged-crush kind of way – about how kind he is, how well he listens, how good-looking he is, how much she likes him even after all those years. She walks the tightrope here, unflinching in her appraisal, indulgent in her praise. Somehow, she manages to condemn the restaurant while still convincing you of its tremendous worth. The book is a delight; it is a magic trick. It is also terrifically funny.

Describing a vacation they took before they got engaged, Havrilesky reaches a frenzy of desperation that might feel sad if you could somehow stop laughing. The trip has barely started, and it is not going well. Havrilesky notes:

At this moment when you recognize for the first time that you are wasting a literal fortune just to lug an extra large man-shaped bag through a long-ago-destroyed, overpriced tourist wasteland, as your pulse races and you realize that this charmless mountain of wincing leather will soon propose marriage to you, of all things, that’s when you know in your heart that all lives peter out early and become miserable descents into old age and disappointment.

A beat later she asks herself, “Why do you and your lady friends isolate yourselves into miserable pairs instead? Why not marry your friends? Why not marry a nice dog or a gentle horse?”

That failed trip serves as an exemplar for the whole book, as Havrilesky realizes that no European trip (or wedding or baby or house in the suburbs) is going to change them: “All of us were there, our former selves and our current selves. We were excited and melancholy and needy and pissy and impatient and satisfied. And that was the most romantic moment of this very romantic story. . . . Because we knew that it was possible to be disgusted and annoyed and bored and still feel love.”

Woven through each essay is a chronological reflection on the author’s experience of being a woman, being a girlfriend, then a wife and a mother, none of which is easy. Midway through the collection is a kaleidoscopic essay on moving to the suburbs that is hardly about marriage at all. Instead, it is about being a particular person (one who may actually hate everything) in a particular time (around the 2016 election) and place. It is about feeling seen and figuring out who you want to be and learning how to adapt when the world delivers a product you never ordered. The essay is crowded, and as the stories of her neighbors and the strangely effective metaphors pile up, a refracted image of the author emerges, so visible it feels almost painful, especially as she admits, “It’s hard not to feel like you’re messing it all up. Everything feels personal, and everything leaves a mark.”

Havrilesky’s intense candor and the occasional (okay, regular) use of profanity may turn some readers off, but others will find her tone just the right blend of tenderness and irreverence. She may claim to hate everyone, she may rail against her husband’s golf shirts or the way he dared to hold their newborn while cooking, but she is human. And she recognizes and sits with the beauty of our shared humanity. As she stands in the back of the elementary school talent show, she describes a type of magic in the room: “The magic let you know that everyone felt the same things, that everyone was fragile and confused and heartbroken under their skin.”

This, then, may be the key to her marriage, as it is certainly the key to her book. Years later, when they are trapped together during the pandemic lockdown, Havrilesky describes losing her cool, and Bill just listening and seeing her. She writes, “Bill understood how it felt under my skin. That’s all I really needed, as it turned out. That’s all I ever need most of the time.” In fact, it’s all any of us need, and it is a kind of magic when we feel it. It’s the delicious dish served at that ugly, overpriced restaurant, the one that makes you insist that the bad stuff is all worth it.

Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage
By Heather Havrilesky
Ecco Books
Published February 8, 2022