Maile Meloy: “The Proxy Marriage”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Maile Meloy’s “The Proxy Marriage” was originally published in the May 21, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

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It isn’t a secret to anyone who has followed this blog in the past that I’m a huge fan of Maile Meloy’s short fiction.  I loved her excellent debut collection, Half in Love, and cannot praise enough her even better follow-up, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (my review of Half in Love here; of Both Ways here).  I was thrilled, then, to see that she was back with this week’s New Yorker story.  I was doubly thrilled to see that it begins in Montana, where my favorites of her stories take place.

“The Proxy Marriage” focuses on the love that William, an awkward and shy boy, has for Bridey Taylor, a confident singer who wants to become an actress.  The story begins when each is in high school, looking forward to a life beyond the small town they are growing up in.  Though William loves Bridey desperately, he is under no illusion that his future will include her in any greater role than she already plays.  He hasn’t the courage to ask her out.  In fact, after another boy has asked Bridey out, told her that he has already accomplished two of the three goals he has for high school, and that he thinks she can help him with the third, which is to have a serious girlfriend, Bridey laughs to William, “He was so earnest.”  Then, “William made a mental note never to be earnest with Bridey.”

Bridey’s father is an attorney.  As it turns out, Montana is one of the few states to allow proxy marriages and the only state to allow double proxy marriages, where neither person has to be present.  Due to the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is quite a demand for these types of marriages, and Bridey’s father asks William and Bridey to act as the proxies.  Of course, the prospect of even a proxy marriage to Bridey makes William unable to speak straight.  He accepts and shows up to the ceremony dressed in a suit.  Bridey hasn’t taken it nearly as seriously.

“You look nice,” she said.  There was annoyance in her voice.

“Thank you,” he said, mortified.

Bridey looked like an ordinary girl in a sullen mood, not like the love of anyone’s life, and he felt a flicker of hope — not that she would ever come to love him, but that someday he might not be in thrall to her, he might be free.  She was chewing gum.

We feel for William for whom this love is a torture, especially as we see him recognize that peace might come if he could only stop loving her.  Even when they both go to school in different states, and even when they are both finished with school and seeking stability.  In expert fashion, Meloy quickens the narrative pace, while showing us that through the passage of the years William’s feelings do not change. 

Bridey laughed, and then it turned into something like a sob.  “Maybe my mother was right,” she said.  “I’m just not pretty enough.”

“Bridey,” he said.  “You’ve been there eight months.”

But they had the same conversation after two years, then three. [. . . .]  Sometimes he went weeks without thinking of Bridey, and sometimes she haunted him.  Then came a year when there were no calls, no e-mails, no word.

The years continue to pass, and William cannot remove himself from his feelings for Bridey; it doesn’t help that any time both are visiting home and are free they participate in proxy marriages.  William spends much of him time resenting his feelings, even suspecting that Auden’s line — “If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me” — is just an example that proves “[t]he role of the human brain was to rationalize suffering.”

This isn’t my favorite of Meloy’s stories, but I still loved being back in her world where the writing is succinct and direct.  There’s no evasion here, as we learn the story of William’s love through the years.  Highly recommended.

16 thoughts on “Maile Meloy: “The Proxy Marriage””

  1. jerry says:

    Very much looking forward to reading this one “Ranch Girl” and some of her other work are among my favorite stories of the past 10 years.

  2. I haven’t read the story and have deliberately not read the review.

    The physical magazine will arrive in a few days and I will read it then. I love Meloy as much as you do and can’t tell you how much I am looking forward to reading this. And, yes, I am more than willing to wait for print on paper to do it.

  3. Trevor says:

    Jerry, one of my favorite stories is “Travis, B.” It was the first of hers I read.

    Kevin, I believe it was you who first brought her to my attention, so I thank you. And I respect your ability to wait for the print edition. For a new Meloy, I couldn’t have :) .

  4. Shelley says:

    Just wanted to say that I love that White House New Yorker cover.

    So much better than the stupid halo one on that other magazine.

    The decision was not about Obama; it was about all Americans.

  5. Aaron says:

    Trevor, I can only agree with your assessment of this story (we even quoted the same lines: http://bit.ly/IXXG1v), and if you think that this is one of her weaker stories, well then surely I’ve got to crack open one of her collections. A story like this could so easily spill into mere sappiness, so when you say that the progression of time is expertly handled, it’s no overstatement, and although we’re largely focused on William, I get a great sense of how Bridey’s been shaped (and romantically informed) by the absence of her psychic-obsessed mother, who is looking for things in the past rather than present in the, well, present.

    I don’t read author interviews, but I wonder which came first — the device of a double-proxy wedding necessitating the creation of two characters who would participate in them, or if Meloy already knew these two people and just needed some defining act to pull them together, charting their evolving reactions to this sacred rite over time. (One of my favorite moments is when Bridey is reciting another person’s wedding vow and starts by choking back laughter and ends up being taken aback, as if she’s suddenly connecting with what she’s been standing in for.)

  6. Trevor says:

    I believe the legal curiosity of the proxy marriage came first, Aaron. In fact, I believe Meloy’s father was on the state legislature when it okayed double proxy marriages (because, if one can be absent, why not both?). Meloy had stumbled upon this and tried writing the story around it.

    And . . . if you like this I’m convinced you’ll love the rest of her work and that you should begin it immediately : ).

    I had a question about the ending to “The Proxy Marriage.” I was surprised that it was happy, but not turned off. As I’ve thought about it, I’m not sure I’m convinced it really is fully happy.

    Of course, there is no doubt that William loves Bridey and has done so for a long time. But how will that somewhat obsessive love present itself now that Bridey is reciprocating. Also, how much can Bridey honestly reciprocate? Sure, she loves William and, in a moment of pain when things in life aren’t going as well as planned, she recognizes that he’s always been there for her. But, if she even continues to love him, can she ever hope to reciprocate his love? Which goes into the last few lines referencing Auden: he’s fine being the most in love at this point, because he’s finally getting something in return, but I’m skeptical that you can be the one most in love for long and have a healthy relationship — he’ll want more, and I’m not convinced Bridey can give it.

    So a lovely story that ends right at the brink of a million possibilities — excellent!

  7. Aaron says:

    Yes, me being a hopeless romantic, I just take the ending as happy, even though there are plenty of hints (the dead Afghani soldier, the great snap between not wanting to be earnest and the next-day collapse of the Twin Towers — a start, if you will, to the Age of Irony and Distance) that marriages do not last. But when it comes to love, especially the all-encompassing sort, I think the future is irrelevant; you’re correct, however, that great stories OFFER a flood of possibilities, even if we don’t necessarily need to explore them to enjoy what’s there.

    (But since we’re talking about it, I’m not convinced that William will ever need more from Bridey, nor that Bridey will be incapable of giving it. She’s never seemed to need to settle before — in fact, her having been married suggests that she’d be more jaded than ever, wary of a promises’s hypnotic death — and because we’ve charted her growth over such a long time, I’m prone to believe that Meloy wants us to think that Bridey has grown up: i.e., has reached a point where she can embrace the sincerity she has, until now, merely been posing for in all of the proxy marriages.)

  8. Trevor says:

    I’m prone to believe that Meloy wants us to think that Bridey has grown up: i.e., has reached a point where she can embrace the sincerity she has, until now, merely been posing for in all of the proxy marriages.

    A superb insight, Aaron. I think you’re right. Bridey has grown up a lot from the girl who showed up to the first proxy marriage chewing gum, not taking any of what was beneath the surface seriously.

    I do wonder how others will fare reading a short story with a happy ending. We seem to like them to shock us with a bit of tragic understanding, and, even if read to be a bit ambiguous, this story simply doesn’t do that.

  9. Roger says:

    I loved everything about this, including the happy ending, which is about the most daring thing a writer of literary fiction can do — and Meloy pulled it off flawlessly. I was moved, dammit; no joke! I, too, enjoyed both of her collections and look forward to the third, which evidently will be published after she has made lots of cash with her YA novel and the ensuing movie.

  10. Trevor says:

    A great response, Roger. I actually have that YA novel on my shelf and have heard good things about it, but I haven’t read it yet. I also have both of her novels there untouched as of yet. I must lack a bit of faith that she can do those as well as she does short stories. I need to get over that.

  11. John Holmstrom says:

    Loved the story! Thanks for the happy ending…as I read I kept thinking that i didn’t want to get to the end to find he was really gay, or she had been working a a hooker
    for years, etc., etc.

    Then of course I slid into memories of past “loves” (divorced at 34, never re-married)
    and the wonderful ladies that moved in and out of my life and the dumb, dumb things I did and thought….no, matter I “see” them as slowly being more and more happy and unguarded and…well, anyway…thaks Maile!

    Onward.

  12. jerry says:

    Old fashioned yes but a beautiful story. I feel like Holden and want to call up Maile Meloy and buy her a drink for writing it.

    Tremendous story, as good as anything the magazine has done in years.

  13. Jon says:

    I’m also a big Meloy fan (is there a better title around than “Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It”?), but found this story flawed and unsatisfying. I agree with Trevor that the ending allowed for lots of possibilities, but this troubled me, as it highlighted the opaqueness of the character William.

    There was something about Bridey that just jumped off the page–we got hints into her character throughout the story (e.g., the self-correction at the laugh over the vows). In contrast, all along I had doubts about William’s “love” for Bridey and now consistent his character was.

    If someone so painfully shy really capable of falling into the role of easy confidante with the object of his affections? What kind of “love” is it, if he wishes he could be freed somehow–that really feels more like an obsessive-compulsive disorder. (I.e., that dynamic just doesn’t ring true for an authentic love–if he was able to get himself out of town, apply to school, etc., surely he could have found some way to express himself.)

    I suppose Williams may be plausible, but he’s just too opaque to know how to read him. (In that sense, he’s similar to Bridey’s father–he’s so reactive that pictures of Abu Graib (sp?) make him protest the war by denying marriage to soldiers? Why?)

    So, while I always enjoy Meloy’s writing, and the character Bridey, there was too much of a cipher at the center of the story, and the ambiguous ending just added to a sour taste the story left.

  14. Jon says:

    “The decision was not about Obama; it was about all Americans.”

    Just a quick note. When I see language like this, I think it’s important to note that the only “decision” made was for Obama to make public his personal opinion. Nothing changes legally–states can still ban gay marriage, etc.

    (And as regards the value of Obama’s personal decision, please see Glenn Greenwald in Salon.com for an anti-cheerleading stance of a gay man.)

  15. Ken says:

    I was truly surprised by what I too thought was a happy ending. This reminded me of the kind of 1940′s melodramas/love stories which Hollywood can no longer make well. Similarly, it’s rare to read such an intelligent, resonant, historically aware story with complex characters which also has some of the pleasures I would imagine one finds in more generic romance fiction. I’ve never heard of this writer before but will keep an eye on her from now on.

  16. Jon says:

    Ken: (and others who never heard of Meloy before)

    Definitely check out “Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It.” Great collection

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