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Book Review: Foreverland by Heather Havrilesky


book cover of Foreverland by Heather Havrilesky featuring a 1950s-style illustrated white woman in a man's embrace

Heather Havrilesky’s Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage is more than just a memoir about marriage. As its title suggests, the book is a no-holds-barred deep dive into what really happens in that slow stringing together of day-to-day life that is the reality of “happily ever after.” Outrageously hilarious and deeply vulnerable, Foreverland is a refreshing, candid account of one woman’s experience with lifelong partnership — from sexy courtship to ugly parenting meltdowns and every little stop along the way.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the retro 1950s housewife illustration gracing Foreverland’s cover piqued my interest in this book, but Havrilesky’s seemingly mundane subject matter beckoned me, too. “Divine tedium?” I thought to myself. “Tell me more!”

My parents divorced when I was a kid. I grew up with an understanding (a healthy one, I think) that there is no literal, objective way to promise “forever” to anyone. It’s a bummer to think about, but life can get in the way and the future is not 100% predictable. At the same time, a life-long commitment to another person with who to build a family is a thing that I want. It’s even a thing I believe is possible, and sometimes I find myself struggling to hold both belief systems at once. The confusing dance of feminism and the patriarchy complicates this further. What am I, a straight cis woman trying to live her best feminist life, really getting myself into by desiring a heterosexual marriage in the traditional sense? Is this not a flawed concept at the outset?

Havrilesky confronts and grapples with these questions and more through every page of her memoir. I eagerly positioned myself as the experienced spouse’s apprentice, soaking up her feminist observations, conflicted feelings, and wise words with every fiber of my curious and unmarried single lady being. In spite of the seriousness of this grappling, Havrilesky’s witty, conversational tone makes reading this book a breeze. For readers expecting a more distant or politically correct account, the book’s voice may take some getting used to. “Marriage grinds your face into the dirt until you can see new colors and taste new flavors,” Havrilesky writes in the opening chapter. But she goes on to show you exactly what she means.

She recounts conversations with her husband with intimate asides to the reader that make it feel like she’s halfway through a cocktail with you. “Okay. I hear you,” her then-fiancé says to her in one confrontational scene. In her narration, she elaborates: “That’s all he said, because he literally has nothing to say, ever, like all men.”

The story of Foreverland centers on a more-or-less traditional heterosexual marriage and family structure. (I say “more-or-less” due to the presence of a stepson, which offers a more-nuanced-than-usual flavor to Havrilesky’s introduction to motherhood.) Havrilesky defamiliarizes the all-too-familiar and examines the true meaning of what it is for a woman to commit to one man forever. She interrogates the male/female dynamic in her relationship, which is not immune to the patriarchy. When I read about how she cared for her husband when he was sick with the flu after he failed to care for her illness with the same dedication (“I am a dream nurse, and I am grinding my dreaminess into his face: See. This is how you do it, motherfucker“), I felt seen, as well as rightfully but compassionately called out. This probing into the patriarchy’s role in her marriage is most compelling in her reflections on motherhood.

Foreverland digs into the messiness of wanting to be a mother while being terrified to be a mother, and questions the absurd hypocrisy of a society that reveres motherhood as the ultimate expression of womanhood while it also dismisses motherhood as an identity that takes away who you are as a woman. Before getting pregnant, Havrilesky wonders: “Why did the kids at home always make the moms look bad, but somehow the dads got to be the same people they were before they had kids?” Once she is a mom, she notices herself disappearing in others’ eyes. “How had I gone from being a woman to being some asexual blob that’s dragging her ghost children with her everywhere she goes?”

So many moments of Foreverland are laugh-out-loud honest. One memorable moment is when Havrilesky compares telling an expectant mother to buy What to Expect When You’re Expecting to “telling someone planning a trip to the beach to rent Jaws.” The book is also filled with astute observations, including “babies are like Pokémon that change when exposed to different elements,” “you don’t know anger until you witness suburban anger up close,” and “marriage is a lifelong market correction to true love’s overvaluation.” (Insert fire emoji, right?)

Ultimately, Foreverland is an ode to the utter chaos that is building a life with another person. As a woman desperate to get an honest look at the reality beyond “happily ever after,” this book gave me the funny, frank assessment and demystifying personal narrative that I was craving. Alongside the book’s cringe-worthy and dramatic moments are unexpectedly beautiful expressions of partnership and commitment. For those who need one, Havrilesky will be your unapologetically flawed, brilliant, sympathetic friend who will generously take you along for the ride of her marriage (or, as she calls it, “the world’s most impossible endurance challenge”). She invites you to sit back, relish in the real talk, and keep in mind that we’re all just trying to do our best.

Lillie Gardner is a writer of prose and screenplays in St. Paul, Minnesota. She loves literary fiction and memoir—both to read and to write—and is particularly excited about quirky Midwestern stories and women's history. When she's not writing or reading, she's usually teaching piano, taking her cat Ava Gardner for a stroll or chasing after the newest vegan eats in the Twin Cities.

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