Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Antonya Nelson’s “First Husband” was originally published in the January 6, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
On December 31, my host blacked out, so I didn’t have a chance to provide my response to this story before the holiday. Other than the last line — which I found unearned — I didn’t like anything about “First Husband,” a story that goes in many directions but still feels trite. The themes are powerful — broken families, the irrational attraction to awful men, the futile desire to shield the next generation — but Nelson’s style here is to hit these themes on the head, again and again, without providing a solid structure for them to hold together. Which is why I found it preachy, underformed, and passable.
Below, Betsy provides a synopsis of the plot and a better — and much more generous — response below. The holiday helped me move along from this story rather quickly.
Antonya Nelson’s “First Husband” opens with a phone that rings in the middle of the night. During the next five or six hours, “Lovey” tends to her step-grandchildren while ex-step-daughter Bernadette tracks down a husband on a binge. This is a tricky story of shifts and veils; but for that very reason you should read it before you read what follows.
One of the tricky things is that I liked Lovey at first — the way she seems both honest and loving. After a little time, though, I think not. There are veils here.
When Bernadette calls asking Lovey for help, she is sitting in Lovey’s driveway in a snowstorm at two in the morning with her seven year old, toddler and baby in the back. From this dramatic pose, one would think that maybe she is seeking shelter from an abusive husband. No, not actually. What she is doing is more melodramatic than that. From a picture posted early the next morning on Bernadette’s Facebook page, it appears that maybe she has just decided in the middle of the night to have a spree with her husband, but for convenience has called it a rescue mission. The fact is, when she talks to Lovey the next morning, she is drunk, and Lovey knows it.
Bernadette is the drunk mother of three at seven in the morning.
What is a little misleading is that it is Bernadette’s husband who is supposedly the “bad boy.” He is the one who is now under the surveillance of a court-ordered sobriety. Lovey considers Bernadette to be a reformed former wild child; Lovey attributes this reformation to Caleb’s birth.
The problem for the reader is to balance what “Lovey” is thinking and doing in this emergency with what she is missing about the implications that the situation suggests. On the one hand, she is helping out Bernadette in a rather selfless manner. On the other, Bernadette’s dysfunctional marriage allows Lovey more (and more intense) access to her step-grandchildren. In other words, Bernadette’s dysfunctional marriage provides Lovey the desperate love she appears to need desperately. Lovey gets to rescue Bernadette and she gets to rescue Caleb. In AA terms, this story looks into enabling behavior of the one that perpetuates self-indulgent behavior in the other.
There are circles of enabling: Bernadette “rescues” Lovey when she stands by her after the divorce; William “rescues” Lovey; Lovey “rescues” Bernadette and Caleb; Bernadette “rescues” her husband; and Caleb unconsciously “rescues” his mother with his adultified caretaking for his little sisters.
“Lovey” herself appears to be another barely reformed and very needy former “wild child.” She married William while she was still in love with her first husband. When Bernadette awakens her, Lovey is dreaming of her first husband. Lovey doesn’t call Bernadette on her behavior because she needs Bernadette’s loyalty and she needs Caleb — the child she never had.
Maybe most peculiar, she keeps Caleb up all night playing monopoly — doesn’t help him settle down to sleep.
She says of this: “They were outside of time, Lovey thought, waiting for the rules to kick in again.”
That is how Lovey happened to marry her first husband: — she became his third wife outside the ordinary rules. He was twenty years older, a “serial seducer,” and she was his very young and very naïve third wife. They lived outside the rules and that didn’t end well. There’s an entire reading to this story in which Lovey is still a mess — not fully engaged with her second husband, inappropriately fond of Caleb, stealing Caleb, so to speak, and mistakenly indulgent and enabling of her step-daughter. And then there is the problem of the name she has given herself when Caleb is born. The problem is that Lovey is an assumed name. It is actually a name that should only be bestowed, not assumed. This is more living outside the rules. And it is so close to “lovely” — which presumably she was — as her first husband’s third wife.
Lovey is loyal to wild Bernadette because Bernadette stuck by her when her father divorced Lovey. Bernadette bought Lovey’s story:
Lovey’s first husband had stolen her best years, keeping her captive during the time that she might, in some other circumstance, have delivered children of her own. He’d fooled her, she thought. He’d held her hostage and then released her when it was too late. That was the story she told herself and mostly believed.
More living outside the rules.
Periodically in this story there are flashes of the truth, truths that Lovey ignores, but that the reader has to notice. In this passage, it’s the phrase “he’d held her hostage” that is the tip-off. We know that Lovey’s first husband was rich. Who else can afford four beautiful young wives? After recent stories in the news of real girls who have been stolen and held in secret, Lovey’s idea that she was held against her will is repellent and self-serving. Lovey was held hostage by her own desires — her desire for the man and her desire for what he could give her.
So I’m not nuts about Evelyn-Lovey — except for one thing. There are a lot of worse things she could have chosen to do when she chose to love Caleb. For instance, she could have chosen not to love him.
The story feels a little like the tangled ball of string a patient presents to a therapist. There is good here, and there is also self-delusion, and at the same time there are children and more than one marriage at stake.
Evelyn likes to let Caleb win at Monopoly. At the end of this long night (when he should have been in bed), Caleb realizes that Lovey is letting him win. “Don’t you dare let me win!” he says. Thus Caleb cauterizes the moment, presents a flash of reality. Whether Lovey can let this readjustment allow other readjustments — that is not clear at all.
Evelyn-Lovey is a peculiar name, given that — Evelyn — is so adjacent to “evil.” One is reminded that Lovey enjoys “time outside the rules.”
I wish lovely Lovey’s therapist luck. After all, there are worse things than Evelyn choosing to love Bernadette and Caleb. She could have chosen not to love them. But wait — she has chosen not to love William, and she has chosen not to love Caleb’s little sisters. Tough love might be what they all need more, especially Lovey.
I enjoyed and admired this story for all its twists and veils. There’s more to be said about husband, first husband, and “to husband,” more to be said about the importance of grandmothers, monopoly, letting children win, the worthiness of occasional indulgence and being an arm to lean on.
But I wouldn’t forget that double name: Lovely-Evil-yn.