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Antonya Nelson: “First Husband”

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.

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Trevor

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.

Betsy

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.

15 thoughts on “Antonya Nelson: “First Husband””

  1. marksutz says:

    Because I want to be overwhelmed by Antonya Nelson, because I love her work so much, because her stories ring, usually, so perfectly to me, am I scroogish to be so underwhelmed by this one? Given I have read it just once and without my writer’s radar investigating each nook and cranny for possible brilliance in structure, architecture, etc.

    I suppose I should revisit with my other brain, but my reader-self just was not wowed and at this point in my life as an equal parts reader and story writer, I visit each story with such high expectations that perhaps I am doing myself a disservice.

    This one felt a tad too ‘constructed’ to me. Not always a bad thing, but I’m working here from Henry James’ edict that the only hard and fast rule for success in fiction is that the story must entertain. On a number of levels it did not. I felt ‘taken out’ of this one too much. Felt simultaneously too ‘written by’ and far too compressed. One of the only stories of the last twenty years that has succeeded–to me–in being a perfect piece of compression and artifice (in the best sense of the word) has been Wolff’s ‘Bullet in the Brain.’

    I’m digressing. I’m writing two hours into the new year and with a belly full of Chilean wine after having spent the midnight hour ritually burning pieces of paper with the things about me I want to push into the past.

    Looking forward to comments on this one.

  2. cheeseeating says:

    Well, it’s an interesting one but I am not entirely impressed, I am afraid. The things which have rankled with me are:

    1. It is rather shabby the way the two small girls are resented so much in the story, as opposed to Caleb who is sort of lionized. And, come on, being angry with a baby because it’s hungry? What sort of human sensitivity is that?

    Now, I do understand that the story is told from Lovey’s viewpoint so that these brutish thoughts may not necessarily be the author’s own. Perhaps the author just got carried away. Still, as a young father myself I find the putting down of small children for “faults” which are not really their fault at all deeply off-putting.

    2. What is possibly the greatest mystery of all in the story – why is Lovey *really* childless? – is deftly introduced and then just dropped. I have a number of conjectures bu the author gives us no further clues and one would really expect that having been treated in almost excruciating detail to the dysfunctional families’ backstories, we would finally be given the answer to that.

    3. Being a bit nitpicky here, but the phrase “These children did not compel his specific interest,” just doesn’t sound right.

    4. If Lovey loves Caleb so much and if Bernadette drops the children at her place every so often – how come Lovey has no sweets stored for him in her house?! Either this is a very subtle characterization of Lovey as a flawed heroine or the author dropped the ball on this.

    On the other hand, apart from no.4 I really enjoyed the complex world-building, and the ending really blew me away – I think it shows Caleb finally realizing that he has been forced to grow up quickly. Or maybe not…

  3. Arleen says:

    I agree with Mark.
    The story “First Husband” seems too artificial. Lovey’s lovely sleep is interrupted, she is used and abandoned by her first husband, she is used and deceived by her ex-step daughter and made to feel foolish. Upon admitting this she is not supported by her husband. She is ineffectual in caring for children and is commanded by a seven year old not to let him win Monopoly. One could not accept one more act of bullying or belittling. This reader has difficulty believing Lovey can tolerate as much as she does.
    Her adopted name “Lovey”, is a giveaway. It is a name that diminishes and invites manipulation. Like “Cutie – pie’ or “Honey-bun”, call someone that and you can “get away with murder”.

  4. Trevor says:

    The post above has been updated to include our thoughts. I’m with those who didn’t like the story, also finding it cobbled together. Betsy has provided a more generous response.

  5. cheeseeating says:

    I mostly subscribe to Betsy’s analysis, except for one part: the hostage thing makes perfect sense – if a young woman marries a man who keeps putting off having children with her till she is past her reproductive prime, then indeed she can said to have been “hostage”. Had he let her know in advance that there would be no children she might have married someone else to begin with!

    Maybe this is not really what happened to Lovey and 1stH but as an excuse to tell the world it sound quite reasonable to me.

  6. Betsy says:

    Hi Trevor – You know how I hate to argue with you! But —

    I do think this story is in AA territory – thus the smarmy version of the self linked to some actual good deeds linked to some very self serving selfishness linked to ongoing damage in others – all encouraged by the do-gooder.

    Evil-in-Lovey strikes me as a double identity character, and I liked that.

    Lovey strikes me as a dry drunk: grandiose, impulsive, and indecisive, for three, with grandiosity heading the list. . AA Canada has a very thoughtful page on the dry drunk, and says that the dry drunk has a

    “gross confusion of priorities with the result that a mere whim or passing fancy is mistakenly given more importance than genuine personal needs”.
    (http://www.aacanada.com/drydrunk.html)

    So I argue that the story does hang together. It’s a fairly unpleasant picture of the confused constellation of misdirection that a not-sober family is.

    And I liked it as the New Yorker’s timely toast to the New Year!

    The one thing I didn’t like was that initially I let Lovey fool me. But I came to my senses. I don’t like Lovey the way she is – but I did like the story.

    Happy New Year!

  7. Trevor says:

    I love it when you argue with me, Betsy!

    I’m a bit hesitant to argue back here because I do not feel passionately about this story. It didn’t work for me, and I’ve dismissed it. You’re pulling me out of my shell, though.

    I think you’re a more talented reader than Nelson, in this case, is a writer, Betsy. I see where you are coming from, but I don’t quite think Nelson deserves credit for creating a solid story that deftly deals with the issues. I’ll try — probably not successfully — to show where I’m coming from. Mostly, it has to do with style.

    I’ll begin here: this story takes place in the middle of the night, and, I think, it’s supposed to feel that way to the reader. But Nelson doesn’t pull it off. It might as well be the middle of the afternoon, so if we enter that liminal space with Nelson it’s only because she tells us to, not because she leads us there or surprises us by surrounding us in that feel. Instead, what we get are long, rational discussions of the irrational. I don’t think that I’m being unfair in expecting the story to do this; I think it wants to but can’t.

    For example, here is Lovey thinking about her first husband’s eventual disaffection:

    [A]t some point his indulgence began to falter, his paternal tolerance turned tense, at least as it regarded Lovey, because eventually she was no longer his pretty young wife; she was, instead, too familiar, too known and knowing, too something he could not even put his finger on, but he no longer wished to have sex with her, no longer found her desirable enough to be able to have sex with her. This wasn’t willed, he assured her; it wasn’t his fault. If she insisted, he could medicate himself into readiness, but did she really want that? Did she, he asked earnestly, want him to fake what he could not naturally feel? Was that the kind of love she wanted?

    Yes, she confessed, though only to herself. Yes, that was what she would take, if it was all he could offer.

    “You told me to be honest,” he said. “This is me being honest.”

    That just feels artificial to me. I don’t mean it’s bad writing on a sentence level. I just mean that it comes across as too thought out (even the first husband’s response) rather than felt.

    And here she is thinking about her current husband William:

    And William? Lovey loved him well enough, in the way of adulthood, she thought, not in the feverish former manner of witless drowning immersion, that love she’d fallen into heedlessly, as if into a body of water, with no idea of what such a thing could cost her. It had nearly killed her, when all was said and done. Meaning she’d felt like dying. She would never be that kind of lover again, never endanger herself that way again.

    I don’t know. For some reason it felt off to me, and the issues felt tacked on to the flimsy narrative. They are introduced — often blatantly — and then left undeveloped.

    I admit I read it only once, and it’s probable I am dismissing it prematurely, but so far I’m not convinced this is a story I should reconsider.

  8. Betsy says:

    I agree with you, Trevor, that Nelson doesn’t convince us it’s the middle of the night. But I think that’s a means of persuading us there is something off-kilter in Lovey. Lovey is treating this night as “outside the rules”. To her, it’s not night, or it’s a special night. To us, we should see that she is keeping the little boy up all night, perversely. she is exhausting him.

    It’s like they are at a casino, and the lights never go out, nor need to. Burning the candle at both ends is how she lives. So there is nothing quiet about night with her, nothing protected, nothing truly gentle.

    I find her obsession with her first husband disturbing, and I find her use of her second husband disturbing as well. But I find both stances believable. As a friend says – her first husband was the love of her life. He died, and she was stricken with grief. She remarried an attractive, congenial man, but he would never be the love of her life. That’s life. So in that way, the paragraph about Lovey’s first husband reminds me of my friend, who also felt like dying when her husband died. How much worse to be discarded by the love of your life. So I believed Lovey about that.

    I think we might be dealing with the Claire Messud problem – that the character is unlikable. (My argument being, it’s not the story, it’s the character.) As was pointed out – her treatment of the little girls is careless. No porta-cribs in the house? Really? And she calls herself a devoted grandmother?

    What actually troubles me about reading the story is how Lovey fooled me first time around: I sided with her at first – the discarded wife, the noble grandmother, the coddled second wife. I do mean coddled: I saw no mention of Lovey having to get off to work – like 95% of the rest of us.

    I’m not sure if that was careless reading on my part that I took Lovey’s side at first, or if Nelson guided me into being fooled – until I was disgusted.

    The title interests me. What if Nelson means, “first, husband” – as in, above all, take care of the household and all in it, nurture and protect it, guide it, weed it, clean it, trim it? In a way, I think she does.

  9. Trevor says:

    I really do like your reading, Betsy, and I hate to be stick in the mud: I just think you’re giving this story more than it deserves. I don’t think the reason it doesn’t feel like it’s night is because Nelson wanted to show it was outside the rules. I think she just didn’t, either because she didn’t feel the need (but I do think the story lacked because of it) or because she couldn’t.

    I also want to say that I didn’t dislike the story because Lovey was dislikable (I like dislikable characters). In fact, I found Lovey, with her faults, to be quite remarkable. It’s not easy to be rational in her situation, yet she chooses to be, even if her dreams won’t let her fully discard her feelings for her first husband. I see that you also sided with her on your first read, and maybe on a second reading I’d get more of the nuances of her character.

  10. Dan Madeley says:

    Hi y’all. I’m like my dad in that I rate things 1-10, and I give this one a 5. Haha. I would only add that I thought it was interesting to think about how we grow into the people we were at a very young age. And it’s important that we learn early on that Monopoly is a bad game! Haha. The females, Lovey,and Bernadette both made mistakes in going after the “bad boys” without maturely considering the possible consequences. The point is not to “buy everything”, the strategy of monopoly. And the rapacious three year old seems destined to repeat the cycle, she may grow up to abuse substances like her mother. Lovey has certainly matured, as reflected in her insight in letting Caleb win. It’s interesting to reflect on how Caleb got to be so responsible, and I think the story explicitly indicates that it may be due to the love he has, as opposed to the unloved three year old. An important line is Lovey’s reflection that parents don’t love all their children equally.

  11. Dan Madeley says:

    Remember, the story says that Bernadette’s father and Lovey’s ex also favored Bernadette’s older sister.

  12. Ken says:

    I have the problem I often have with short stories–too much back story out of structural proportion to the actual narrative events in the present. It was exhausting trying to remember all the characters and incidents in Lovey’s past. I did like, though, the last line and certain moments. Betsy nicely teases out her less-than-likable qualities. When reading this, I though that she was too much a saint and started wondering why Nelson was sanctifying her so Betsy is very helpful in making good points that Nelson is not exactly glorifying her and I like the way she analyzes the character’s two names.

  13. danthelawyer says:

    I can’t fully express my gratitude to Betsy for helping me appreciate this story. At first read, I really didn’t like it, and found the last line especially unjustified. But if we see Lovey as an enabler par excellence, then it’s all the more potent when Caleb calls her out on it. In effect, he has revealed her whole sanctimonious life to be a co-defendant self-deluded fraud. Bravo.

  14. Roger says:

    Betsy, I think you make the strongest possible case for this story – your analysis of it is very interesting, much more so than the story itself. But reading the story (as compared to reading your thoughts on it) was not too enjoyable for me. The main problem as I see it is one of craft: it is too expository, as Ken notes (his term is back story) and as marksutz indicates, when he says he felt too “taken out” of it. The reader is asked to spend much too high a percentage of time listening to Lovey narrate her personal history rather than experience scenes taking place in the present moment. The emotional connection we want to find in a story is much harder to attain when we’re being told rather than shown, especially when the telling concerns the past. And it raises the question: Why does Lovey feel the need right now to rehash the history of her first marriage and recount the differences between how she felt about her first husband and how she feels about William? Bernadette’s “emergency” drop-off of the kids doesn’t seem like an unprecedented event, so it wouldn’t be expected to trigger such reveries.

    The other problem is with that silly nickname. Lovey? Seriously? There is a reason Gilligan’s Island used that name for the millionaire’s wife – it is frivolous, impossible to take seriously, perfect for a goofy 1960s sitcom. No way does Evelyn adopt that nickname, and no way would someone as level-headed as William address her by it. Every time it was uttered, Jim Backus’s voice echoed in my head, which I don’t think is what a literary fiction writer is going for.

  15. Steve Stevenson says:

    I know this is more than a month late but, since nobody else has said it, let me be the one–I loved every word of this story, much more than Betsy even. There are not just circles of enabling but circles of reality here which I found fascinating–nobody does anything for just one reason, and nobody is either completely lying or completely telling the truth (well, except for Caleb). Nor is it clear what the motivations are–we have to our own conclusions as to why, for example, Lovey enables Bernadette so much.

    I also found the story to be quite engaging as black comedy–a bitter coating around a very sweet pill. To me the name “Lovey” reflected that kind of playfulness from the author, since it’s just the kind of thing you might come up with when you have to come up with something now and can’t think of anything better. Barack Obama called his grandmother “Toot”, so it does happen.

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