Marriage by Fire by Nancy Scott Review
by Charles Rammelkamp
Marriage by Fire by Nancy Scott
Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp
“Marriage by Fire”
Big Table Publishing Company, 2018
$15.00, 110 pages
“Claire, you can walk into a room full of strangers,” my husband said, “and you’re immediately drawn to a man in trouble.” So begins “A Fairy Tale,” one of the vignettes of Nancy Scott’s new novella, Marriage by Fire. The irony is that Ben, the husband, is the original man-in-trouble to whom she is drawn.
Marriage by Fire is composed of twenty-one “chapters,” some of them prose and some poetry, about the protagonist Claire’s love struggles. She is a sympathetic character, a woman on her own who is eager to marry and start a family and falls for Ben, an aspiring academic, with whom she has a couple of sons, before it turns out that Ben is gay and does not desire her. There are episodes of mutual recrimination and jealousy, some violent, as at first they try to maintain the façade of a happy marriage in order for Ben to secure tenure at an Ivy League school and make his way to a full professorship, the two of them enjoying the cushy life within academia. True, a senior colleague has a habit of feeling Claire up at parties, making unwanted passes, and Ben, fearing he will jeopardize his career if he comes to her assistance, does nothing. More than once, Claire describes herself as a “sacrificial lamb,” as in the poem, “Snapshot of an Ivy League Faculty Wife”:
My husband’s chairman asks me to dance,
his arm brushing my breast, his fingers
weaving through my dark hair.
The sacrificial lamb, I keep smiling.
Oh, how I keep smiling. And the band
won’t stop playing fox-trots.
Having her own needs, Claire takes lovers, always with men-in-trouble. Ben, though he isn’t physically attracted to her, erupts with jealousy. He is even physically violent at times.
There’s Mike, an unreliable playboy who is always broke. He attracts many women. Claire enjoys him but knows better than to expect any commitment from him. They frequently meet in fleabag motels advertising Special Day Rates. At one point, in “Tell Him ‘Good Morning’ from Me,” Claire needs to flee Ben because he is getting rough with her. The title comes from the recriminating comment Ben makes to Claire at the end when she calls home from Mike’s place. Claire works for a social services agency, placing kids in dangerous situations into more secure environments. “Although I made life-altering decisions at work,” she writes, “I felt incapable of saying to Mike, ‘Sorry, I can’t be with you anymore.’ He was like a bad habit, hard to give up.” Eventually, relations with Mike come to a head in “Evening at Marico’s” when Mike tries to arrange a threesome with Claire and another of his young women.
Still in the midst of her acrimonious divorce from Ben, a lengthy process of estrangement, separation and finally the complicated and expensive legal procedures that seem so endless, Claire gets involved with a younger married man, Andy. Claire, who is involved in local politics, meets him at a reception for the refurbishing of an old summer retreat that had been built by a wealthy 19th century New York family, a project designed in a feeble attempt to combat the poverty, crime and corruption that have gradually overtaken the town, through the restoration of some of its lost grandeur, “a cultural renaissance with coats of paint,” Claire wryly comments.
Andy is another of those men-in-trouble, though at first blush he seems like a dynamic, forward-thinking politician. In the story, “Upstairs at Edgmere,” a romantic weekend turns sour when Andy feels remorse over cheating on his wife. “In the end,” Claire writes, “what Andy and I managed to accomplish was to construct a fantasy about each other: he seduced an older woman; I found a younger man who desired me.” On further reflection Claire notes, “intimacy obliterated that fantasy.” In the poem, “Easter Week,” Claire encounters Andy’s ex-wife fifteen years after their affair. “Kate was married to someone else,
but she never forgave us.
Even now, she can’t help herself.
Andy’s story always gets grimmer.
He was stealing big time, she says.
Had to leave town.
As titles like “My Trouble, Not Yours” suggest, Claire does not blame anybody but herself for her troubles. In the end she gets involved with a prison guard / slumlord named Charles. “Charles was basically a good man” she sums him up in “Boot Camp, Graduation Day,” but even he comes with trouble. For one thing he is African-American, and this causes problems for them both in certain social situations, a white woman and a black man. For another, he is a Vietnam veteran which, as we learn in “Scars” and elsewhere, has left its marks. And for another thing – well, not to give anything away, but even with its hurdles, is this the relationship that Claire’s been searching for all along? The reader will have to decide. But one thing’s for sure, we’re all pulling for her by the end.