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The Marriage Pact


The Marriage Pact

THE MARRIAGE PACT defies easy categorization. One should not be surprised. Author Michelle Richmond’s previous novels (not to mention THE GIRL IN THE FALL-AWAY DRESS, her award-winning collection of interconnected short stories) slip and slide across genre lines while providing a feast for those who are looking for something engrossing, challenging and thought-provoking in their reading material. THE MARRIAGE PACT doubles down on the promise of Richmond’s previous works in a tale that is by turns cautionary, parabolic and metaphoric.

The story is narrated in the first person by Jake, a thirty-something marriage and family counselor who is married to Alice, an associate in a high-powered law firm. The opening scene jumps ahead through a third or so of the book before things settle down, as Jake discusses wooing and then marrying Alice, with the two of them combining their lives against the backdrop of San Francisco, where they engage in their respective professional practices. Of the two of them, Alice is by far the more complex figure, at least in Jake’s eyes. Before she attended law school, Alice was a singer-songwriter in a rock band that one could classify as faintly reminiscent of Robin Lane & the Chartbusters. While her present focus is on the law, Alice likes to keep her hand in her creative endeavors. Jake is content to admire her art, though her past artiste lifestyle causes him a bit of quiet insecurity, as opposed to the out-and-out jealousy that Alice experiences.

"After reading THE MARRIAGE PACT, you may not be inclined to sign anything without a lot of thought, and without reading the fine print. All of it."

The jumpstart of the novel occurs when Jake and Alice receive a book titled The Pact as a wedding gift. As they quickly learn, it is neither light reading nor is it a “guide” to marriage for newlyweds, though it does begin with a set of guidelines. These are very easy: 1) Always answer the phone when your spouse calls; 2) Exchange thoughtful gifts monthly; 3) Plan a trip together once per quarter; and 4) Never mention The Pact to anyone. The devil, of course, is in the details, and it is the fine print that increasingly causes Jake and Alice surprising and frightening difficulty, given that it transforms The Pact into something more akin to a state’s revised code than a 12-step program. Jake and Alice are gently pressured into signing on --- anyone who has ever sat in a car dealership sales office or through an Amway presentation will sympathize --- but quickly come to realize that they have made a terrible mistake with the best of intentions.

Members of The Pact are seemingly everywhere, observing members’ every move. When there is a transgression, such as one partner working too late too frequently, the reaction of The Pact is swift and sure. We’re not talking about something relatively mild, such as shunning. Actual punishment is meted out. Every aspect of Jake’s and Alice’s lives seems to be controlled. The two discuss quitting The Pact --- agreement be damned --- but it’s not that easy. Members, who address each other as “friend,” can influence everything from getting a loan to, say, taking business away from the high-powered law firm that employs Alice. Jake finally takes a daring step to remedy the problem, but there is a significant question as to whether or not it will be enough. Or if it will make matters even worse.

Elements of THE MARRIAGE PACT faintly reminded me of a number of literary works --- from Ira Levin’s ROSEMARY’S BABY to “Quitters, Inc.” by Stephen King --- but it is very much its own story. One might find their suspension of disbelief challenged, wondering why Jake and Alice don’t just quit and fight the consequences. There is a certain personality, though, that actually welcomes the sort of authority that The Pact provides --- look at Jim Jones’ followers --- and when that factor is considered, what occurs here doesn’t seem too far-fetched at all. After reading THE MARRIAGE PACT, you may not be inclined to sign anything without a lot of thought, and without reading the fine print. All of it.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on July 28, 2017

The Marriage Pact
by Michelle Richmond