Rocky shoals of romance - hold on tightBooks
Illustration: Rocco Fazzari
Ben Schrank's protagonist Peter Herman once wrote a self-help book called Marriage Is a Canoe. Decades later, his hokey aphorisms are still in circulation, having reached bestseller status despite, or maybe because of, its simple ''Marriage for Dummies'' epigraphs such as ''Good love is a quilt - light as feathers and strong as iron''. The genesis for all this homespun wisdom was the formative years Peter had spent in Lake Okabye in upstate New York, trout fishing with his beloved grandpa, a twinkly soul who enjoyed a blissful marriage and thus decided to pass on the secrets of his marital satisfaction.
With dewy-eyed anecdotes and a bit of poetic licence, Pop's life lessons became immortalised in print. Apparently ''a good marriage is a canoe - it needs care and it isn't meant to hold too much - no more than two adults and a few kids''. Now languishing in his 60s, Peter is a reclusive widower, struggling with writer's block and ambivalent about a woman he appreciates but doesn't love.
He has plenty of time to question whether his whimsical metaphors actually reflect real life. Although he did marry the first girl he kissed and though their union was largely solvent and successful, he didn't exactly stick to his own advice. For despite his sanctimonious platitudes about infidelity (''if you're are going to have a happy journey through this life, stay in your own canoe''), he was a bit of a philanderer in his time and had no qualms about hopping in and out of different vessels.
Love is a Canoe by Ben Schrank. Text Publishing, $29.99.
Schrank's book-in-a-book drama shows that love and marriage don't necessarily go together like a horse and carriage.
Alongside Peter's maudlin late-life reminiscences, Schrank introduces two other narratives and eventually all three will intersect in a painful collision. There's the super-cute hipster couple Eli and Emily (he's a bicycle manufacturer; she's a brand consultant) whose marriage is in choppy waters ever since she found out her husband had a fling with his ''work wife''. But Emily is convinced they will work it out. Her secret weapon is Peter's book, which remains the bedrock of her faith in marriage after she first read it as a girl locked in the bathroom to escape her parents' fighting.
A third narrative involves Stella, a young and ambitious editor who comes up with a contest to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the events based on Marriage Is a Canoe: the prize is a weekend stay and relationship counselling session with Peter, the love guru himself.
It takes a little bit too long for these events to coalesce but when they finally do, the results are nothing less than spectacular. It's no great surprise to discover that Peter's canoe will become waterlogged and duly capsize under the weight of everyone's expectations and he will flounder in a hubristic puddle.
With wry humour, Schrank examines the various problems created by the institution of marriage, such as losing your identity to coupledom and trying to live up to the impossible ideals of your partner.
All his characters are flawed and most are delusional. Along the way he also takes a sarcastic look at the politics of the publishing world and the pressures there to toady to your superiors and to boost sales by staging half-baked publicity stunts.
With alternating viewpoints and a narrative that jumps back and forth in time and place, from the '60s to the present day (including excerpts from the self-help book itself), Love Is a Canoe is not a particularly exciting journey but it is a pleasant and slightly bumpy ride.
Love Is a Canoe
Text Publishing, $29.99