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‘This American Ex-Wife’ Sees No Hope for Marriage

‘This American Ex-Wife’ Sees No Hope for Marriage
‘This American Ex-Wife’ Sees No Hope for Marriage

Divorce is in the literary air lately. Maggie Smith, whose poem “Good Bones” went viral in 2016, released a memoir last year about getting divorced after her husband couldn’t take her success; the nonfiction writer Leslie Jamison’s new book, Splinters, is about splitting up with her husband not long after their daughter was born; Ursula Parrott’s 1929 novel, Ex-Wife, was reissued last spring to a warm reception.

It isn’t a surprise, then, to encounter a new release—This American Ex-Wife, by the journalist Lyz Lenz—that approaches divorce in a style that has all but taken over popular nonfiction directed at primarily female audiences: a light mix of history and social commentary that leans heavily on personal storytelling without quite turning into memoir. Common though it is, this hybrid form is tough to pull off. It can tempt writers to map their own experiences too neatly onto collective ones while also undermining the specificity and perspective that a good memoir needs. This American Ex-Wife suffers from both of these problems. Lenz’s impulse to generalize is so strong that at times her work whiffs of self-help.

Lenz, a former newspaper columnist and popular Substack writer who published two books before this one, got divorced in 2017, after 12 years of marriage to a man who appears in This American Ex-Wife as a petty, controlling jerk. Being with him, Lenz writes, took away her “entire sense of self.” When she describes their relationship, her prose is alive with anguish; when she describes leaving, it sparks with joy. But she rarely writes in this mode for long. Almost without exception, her personal stories give way to exhortations to readers, addressed alternately as “we” and “you,” to free themselves (ourselves?) from the “pyre of human marriage.” Often, Lenz does that by shifting into the cheerleading stance of a TED Talker onstage. “I want to tell you,” she writes early in the book, “that breaking is our power. I want to tell you that walking away is a strength. I want to tell you that there is power in giving up.”

Such prose is undeniably attention-grabbing, a wake-up call in literary form. It’s plainly intended to be inspirational—and, indeed, This American Ex-Wife uses the tale of Lenz’s marriage ending, alongside statistics and interviews and a startling amount of country-music criticism, to argue that straight marriage is a collapsing edifice, a “failed utopia” and “violent prison” that women should abandon. Lenz is correct that marriage is riddled with problems. It has historical roots in a system that subsumed women’s property and legal identity. She notes that enslaved couples tended to be excluded from the protections of marriage, and that gay marriage became legal nationwide only in 2015. Many people are still, as she writes, “forced out of the heterosexual marriage market” today, though Lenz’s arguments on this front (she claims in passing that society has considered some people “too fat or too thin” to get married, for instance) are so sweeping as to veer into the offensive. Lenz refers to sociological studies demonstrating that married men are happier and more successful than their single counterparts; the labor economist Claudia Goldin won the 2023 Nobel Prize in part for her work showing that the gender pay gap today can be attributed to the uneven split in household labor between men and women, especially after they have children.

But history shows the world as it was, social science as it is. It is on the rest of us to imagine the world as it could be. On the page, at least, Lenz never entertains the idea that marriage could change for the better. Nor does she imagine a radical alternative—say, a society in which marriage does not exist. Instead, she turns, over and over, to individual women’s decisions to leave their marriage, which she invariably presents as a brave, necessary, and—yes—inspirational choice. Early in the book, Lenz writes archly, “I’m not arguing that you personally should get a divorce. I mean, not necessarily.” She then goes on to suggest, repeatedly, that you should.

Midway through This American Ex-Wife, Lenz recalls discussing the difficulties of marriage with an unnamed woman who asked not to be put in the book. “I didn’t promise anything,” Lenz tells the reader, a touch smugly. Elsewhere, she describes a moment with a woman who mentions wanting a divorce and then tells Lenz to forget what she said. “I squeeze her hand,” Lenz writes, “and I refuse to forget.” Taken together, these moments demonstrate her conviction that it is her role to bear public witness to women’s marital suffering. She also seems convinced that all women married to men must suffer. Such dramatic certainty creates a variety of insensitivities, as total confidence tends to. At one point, Lenz writes that marriage “is how women are disappeared,” a jarring choice given that, in the past 60 years, the phrase to be disappeared has most often referred to dissident victims of  far-right regimes. Elsewhere, she tells the reader that “no one really knows lonely better than a married woman sitting next to her silent husband”—a claim an unhappily married woman might agree with, and one that might make a grieving widow, or a woman with an incarcerated partner, throw the book across the room.

Unshakable confidence is a key feature of self-help. Writers in that genre telegraph authority while also demonstrating the assurance readers hope to cultivate for themselves. Some do this through bossiness (see the influencer Rachel Hollis’s Girl, Wash Your Face), some through expertise (see the sex therapist Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity). Lenz dips into both modes, which obstructs her ability to access the intimacy and vulnerability that make memoirs work—and, sometimes, make them inspiring. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, a massive best seller that has motivated some readers to change their lives and others to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, is explicitly about overcoming fear and grief, but Strayed doesn’t suggest that the methods that helped her will help others; she delves into her own life without extrapolating, allowing readers to feel her transformation alongside her. Lenz, in contrast, habitually shifts from personal modes of writing to emphatic suggestions that readers follow her lead.

Another conspicuous element of This American Ex-Wife is its focus on individual reinvention. In the middle of a chapter that treats the doomed renovation of the house she and her husband bought together as a metaphor for both their marriage and the institution at large, Lenz writes that “fixing something restores what is old. It’s a conservative effort.” Plainly, her marriage could not be rehabilitated. But Lenz’s tendency to conflate her relationship with all straight relationships means she gives short shrift to the social repairs that might support gender equity in the home and make marriage more of a freely chosen option and less of a thing people do to get health insurance. Child-care burdens are a major reason women leave the workforce; housework, labor traditionally done by women, is undervalued and often unremunerated. Fixing these problems would have a considerable impact on contemporary American marriage, but addressing them is far from Lenz’s main focus. It’s difficult to tell whether this is a matter of impatience—she wants change now, at a speed that mostly works only at the individual level—or a fundamental belief that marriage is immutable because men are.

Although This American Ex-Wife contains sweet cameos by male friends who encourage Lenz to put her own happiness first, its most substantial male perspective is that of the chorus of angry men who comment on and reply to Lenz’s work online. Being harassed by internet misogynists is a miserable experience, one that Lenz, whose newsletter is called Men Yell at Me, has reclaimed as a personal brand. In a recent interview, Lenz mentioned wanting to put men “on blast and on notice” with her book. Even if that’s the case, she shows remarkably little patience for divorced women who hope to get married again. Instead of making space for complexity, Lenz appears to train her eyes on the set destination of a repaired life. For her, this repair means being single. A “better thing [than marriage] did exist,” she writes, “and it was me.”

That idea may be compelling, but it offers little hope for the reader who might want an egalitarian marriage for themselves or for those they love—one that uplifts and protects men and women alike. It’s wonderful that Lenz got her sense of self back from a relationship that destroyed it. But by turning her story into an archetype, she omits the nuance that might have made it resonate.

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