Isabel’s Choice

I want to destroy my friend’s marriage. I’ll explain: I have a friend who is in a ridiculously failed relationship. About two years ago his wife (pretty wisely) wanted out — she wanted more passion, more happiness — they’d become like brother and sister, she said. But when he moved out and started seeing someone else, his wife fell into a deep depression. He ended up feeling crushed with guilt and has come back to take care of her. Now they’re both miserable, but even knowing this he can’t bring himself to start a new life. How do I split these two crazy kids apart?

You know, if this were a film, things could be solved with a makeover montage. Tame those eyebrows, put on a pair of pants that fit, do a couple sit-ups, and voilà. Instant self-esteem and firm belief in his own desirability. True love is only a thirty-minute meet-cute away.

Or, alternately, you would be forced to sleep with one of the spouses. But that is not really advised in the real world.

It is heartbreaking to see a friend in a destructive relationship. And infuriating to see them make a move away from their significant other and then boomerang right back. (Also embarrassing, because god knows your response to the news of their breakup was something like “Glory hallelujah” and you know they think of that every time you ask how things with Ted are going.) You, as an outside observer, as a person who loves your friend, can see their charms, their assets, their deep lovability. But when you tell them “You could do so much better” you might as well be addressing a wheel of cheese.

The first time I read the ending to The Portrait of a Lady, I howled. I may have thrown the book. She goes back to him! There are 600 pages of build-up, of emotional connection with Isabel Archer, of feeling like you are watching your friend be snared by a man who will only do her harm. Each and every character who loves her and believes her to be bright and beautiful sits her down at one point or another to tell her she could do so much better. Even she knows the damage he has done to her. “She had effaced herself when he first knew her; she had made herself small, pretending there was less of her than there really was.” And yet she goes back to him. And I howled.

But the glorious thing about Portrait is that Henry James gives you faith that the story continues even when the pages do not. Isabel Archer lives on. He opens the door to the possibility of change. And really, as painful as it is to read, James does the honest thing. Sometimes they go back. Those 600 pages of build-up, once the anger subsides and you stop projecting your own friends and loved ones onto Isabel Archer, explain why that is the honest ending. Anything else would have been fantasy wish-fulfillment.

So. Be his friend. Not with a self-righteous ultimatum (that “I cannot sit here and watch you destroy yourself” nonsense), but with the understanding that sometimes it takes two or three go-arounds before a lesson is learned and bonds are broken. (Sometimes five or six, or twelve, but hopefully your friend is a quicker study.) Be a true friend to your little Isabel Archer, whether she shows up in your life in the form of a woman or a man.

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Illustration by Thea Brine.