“The Marriage Pact”
Author: Michelle Richmond
Price: $27.00 (Hardcover)
Michelle Richmond’s fifth novel, “The Marriage Pact,” arrives in a flurry of well-deserved excitement. The talk is that the movie rights have already been sold and the novel is being translated into the known languages.
I hope all this is true; “The Marriage Pact” is a fast-paced, intelligent book and deserves all the success it will get.
The story begins simply.
A nice young-ish couple, Alice and Jake, get married.
He is almost 40, she is early thirties.
Jake has earned a PhD and is a practicing psychotherapist, usually counseling teenagers but recently expanding his practice into marriage counseling.
Richmond has chosen to tell the story in the first person from Jake’s point of view which is, in these troubled times, rather bold. It works just fine; Richmond handles the male voice skillfully and the characterization of Alice is enriched by Richmond’s own experience as woman and wife.
Alice, an orphan, originally from a Birmingham suburb, is a high-powered lawyer with a prominent San Francisco firm but she used to be a rock star. Imagine if you can, Linda Ronstadt, in a designer suit and heels, working on legal briefs 12 hours a day.
One of Alice’s very rich and important clients, Liam Finnegan, once a songwriter and front man for a famous Irish rock band, now a financier, expresses a desire to come to their wedding, gives them a fine gift, and invites them to join an organization called The Marriage Pact.
The Founder of the Pact, Orla Scott, a famous British lawyer, had been suddenly left by her husband. Devastated, she retreated to Raithlin, an island off the north coast of Ireland, and in 1992 founded an organization to prevent marriages from breaking up. “Scientifically based,” with nothing “left to chance,” the goals of The Pact seem simple: members will concentrate, focus, do anything, to make their marriages successful and last forever. What can be wrong with that?
New members sign an extremely long, complex, legal document, “The Manual,” a contract with a lot of fine print, explaining the rules. Every marital contingency is accounted for. Perhaps Alice should have reviewed the contract more closely, but she was swept up in the moment.
The members meet for an elegant party once a month. Great fun. All members call one another “Friend”—which seems all right at first, but gets creepy.
Members are encouraged, strongly, to follow certain procedures to enhance their marriages, including a thoughtful gift once a month. Once a quarter they must take a real trip, get away, spend time together. Daily, they must put the marriage first, before work or other distractions: always answer the phone when your spouse calls, no matter what.
They will keep themselves attractive.
(Along the way we learn a lot about marriage research. Couples who are older and/or richer when marrying do better. Marriages which begin with a $5,000 wedding do better than those that begin with a $50,000 wedding. Think about it. Surprisingly, perhaps, couples who met while one or both were already enmeshed in a relationship do better too. They feel they have truly “chosen” one another, made sacrifices in order to be together. Short men stay married longer than tall men. There’s lots more.)
For a while, things go OK. But there is more. The monthly parties and The Pact itself are a secret, not to be mentioned to outsiders.
The Pact is everywhere, and somehow watching ALL THE TIME, as in the show “Person of Interest,” and infractions are calibrated into a complex legal code of felonies and misdemeanors, with appropriate punishments.
Alice stays at work late too many evenings: involuntary Maoist “mind readjustment.”
She gains three pounds and is coerced into 5:00 A.M. physical conditioning.
Jake is accused of improper thoughts and physically punished. Then it gets worse.
The Pact, readers realize pretty fast, is a cult, religious in the sense that the religion is marriage. Jonestown and Waco are explicitly mentioned, but The Moonies and Scientology are not.
Alice and Jake try to quit—wouldn’t you? But, “You don’t leave The Pact and The Pact doesn’t leave you.” At least, not alive you don’t, rumor has it.
Tension rises. The action moves towards nightmare. The reader is wondering how this can end when Richmond takes her narrative in a new direction and The Marriage Pact becomes a genuine thriller, the action moving through airports, a prison in Nevada and finally Northern Ireland.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.