There have been times in protagonist Peter Herman's life that he wishes he had never written the book that made him famous. Marriage Is a Canoe, his self-help manual masquerading as a memoir of the summer he spent with his grandparents when he was thirteen certainly helped him earn the kind of comfortable life he continues to lead forty years after its original publication. But he's now more often embarrassed than flattered by strangers' accolades and admiration; four decades of living, not to mention his own long but imperfect marriage, have led him to believe that his words on marriage written as a young man were more naïve than sage.
But that doesn't mean that generations of readers don't still rely on Peter's book as a manual for marriage or what they wish marriage could be. One of these readers is thirty-something Emily Babson, who first discovered Marriage Is a Canoe during the collapse of her own parents' marriage. Now that she's been married to Eli a handsome, charismatic bicycle entrepreneur for three years, she feels like she needs the folksy wisdom of Peter Herman's book more than ever. Threatened by Eli's vivacious new coworker Jenny, Emily finds the simple messages of Marriage Is a Canoe essential to finding forgiveness.
Meanwhile, Stella, a young editor at Peter Herman's original publisher, has hatched an idea to bring Marriage Is a Canoe back into the public conversation, and, she hopes, back onto the best-seller lists. In conjunction with the release of a revised edition, they'll hold a contest, an old-fashioned "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" essay competition, and the winning couple will get to meet Peter himself, near his idyllic upstate New York home, for a weekend of rest, relaxation, marriage counseling, and maybe a canoe ride or two. When Emily wins the contest, she hopes desperately that Peter can help show Eli the way back to their marriage after all, as Marriage Is a Canoe itself states, "There's nothing wrong with asking for help with your marriage."
Ben Schrank's deceptively simple novel is actually quite complicated, providing insights on several different romantic relationships not only Emily and Eli's but also Stella's and her boyfriend's, Peter and his current companion's, and even the near-sacred relationship of Peter's beloved Pop and his wife Bess. This is accomplished through passages told from Peter's, Emily's, and Stella's points of view, as well as through sentimental passages from Peter's original book and its subsequent revisions.
Like many writers of satire, Schrank walks a fine line between mean-spirited cynicism and straightforward humor; he accomplishes his task, however, as the novel winds up feeling optimistic on at least some levels, despite its clear skepticism about the utility and wisdom of so-called self-help books, not to mention the overreliance on conventional romantic expectations.
Schrank, who is the president and publisher of a Penguin Books imprint, clearly relishes the scenes set in the New York publishing world in particular at times, this material seems a little like inside baseball, but may also be fascinating for some readers in a Devil Wears Prada sort of send-up of workplace dynamics. That being said, Love Is a Canoe is a near-perfect choice for book group discussions, providing various avenues toward exploring our cultural and personal expectations for marriage, our dependence on "experts" to set us on the right path, and our overwhelming desire for a conventional happy ending.
This review was originally published in February 2013, and has been updated for the January 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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