The best books that tell the truth about love & marriage

Joanne Serling Author Of Good Neighbors
By Joanne Serling

Who am I?

I’m a novelist, essayist, and short story writer who finds domestic life as fascinating and complex as any board room battle or historical event. I love books about marriage and family because so few people are willing to talk honestly about them. Finding a great book is like meeting a new friend who is willing to tell you their secrets and then share hard-won advice. 

I wrote...

Good Neighbors

By Joanne Serling,

Book cover of Good Neighbors

What is my book about?

Living in a community means going along with certain unspoken social norms. But where is the line between conformity and complicity? Good Neighbors tells the story of four families who live on a cul-de-sac and enjoy each other’s company at barbeques and dinner parties. They say they're ‘like family’ but hardly know each other. Their fragile bonds are soon tested when one of the couples, Gene and Paige Edwards, adopt a child from Russia. Questions soon emerge about the couple’s parenting and whether they're subtly abusing their newly adopted daughter. Told from the point of view of Nicole Westerhof, a woman with her own troubled family relationships, Good Neighbors forces readers to define for themselves what it means to be a good-enough parent and to live in an engaged and caring community. 

The books I picked & why

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A Happy Marriage

By Rafael Yglesias,

Book cover of A Happy Marriage

Why this book?

It’s been nearly ten years since I first read this book and I can still remember what the characters were wearing in the first chapter. Now that’s visceral storytelling! The author’s ability to capture his intense obsession with his future wife is familiar, poignant, and heart-warming. Yglesias’ portrayal of the couple’s long and, at times, bumpy marriage, makes this one of the most complex and honest portrayals of a marriage that I have ever read. That this is also a book about cancer and death does nothing to diminish the feelings of hope and gratitude embodied on every page. 

The Wife

By Meg Wolitzer,

Book cover of The Wife

Why this book?

You may have heard of the movie with Glen Close or even seen it, but trust me, the book is a thousand times better, funnier, and more biting. (I picked up the paperback while on vacation with my two toddler sons and locked myself in the bathroom at one point just to get through another chapter uninterrupted.) In short, The Wife is the story of a marriage between a world-famous novelist, Joe Castleman, and his wife Joan, and the secret they’ve kept for decades. Wolitzer’s humor and pointed observations about gender inequality make you nod in recognition while laughing so hard your body hurts. 

The Boys of My Youth

By Jo Ann Beard,

Book cover of The Boys of My Youth

Why this book?

Technically, this is not a book about marriage. It’s not even really a book about divorce, although there is one. It’s really a book about men and love and the kind of longing we carry with us from the time we first discover sex in our teens all the way through middle age and its discontents. Although the book is technically a series of essays, it is really one long extended chronology of boys met, men married, risks taken, failures unanticipated. You will laugh, cry and cringe in recognition. 

The House of Mirth

By Edith Wharton,

Book cover of The House of Mirth

Why this book?

Before Tinder, before The Real Housewives franchise, before even love songs and romance novels, marriage was more deal book than love match. In this delightfully subversive novel of manners, Edith Wharton tells the story of Lily Bart, a well-born but impoverished woman on the hunt for a suitable (e.g., wealthy) mate that won’t bore her silly, control, or betray her. That Lily can’t or won’t conform to what she must do to survive is part tragedy, part triumph. You can’t help but root for Lily’s idealism even as you wish she would just save herself already. Wharton’s eye for the telling social detail makes this 100+ old book feel modern and familiar. 

The Man in the Wooden Hat

By Jane Gardam,

Book cover of The Man in the Wooden Hat

Why this book?

Don’t worry that this novel is part of a trilogy; it can easily be enjoyed on its own. The Man in the Wooden Hat tells the story of the courtship and marriage of a man referred to as “Old Filth” (stands for “failed in London, try Hong Kong”) and his wife, Betty. Gardam’s hilarious look at ex-pat life in Hong Kong and elsewhere is wildly entertaining and her minor characters are as quirky and surprising as Betty and Old Filth. PS: The surprising reveal at the end makes this portrait all the more delicious. 

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