Bookshelf: ‘Foreverland’ a funny, insightful love letter to matrimony

Heather Havrilesky mines her own marriage for comic fodder in new essay collection.
North Carolina-based author Heather Havrilesky's latest book is "Foreverland."
Courtesy of Harper Collins

Credit: Harper Collins

Credit: Harper Collins

North Carolina-based author Heather Havrilesky's latest book is "Foreverland." Courtesy of Harper Collins

Oh, Valentine’s Day. You overly sweet, rosy-red day of starry-eyed romantic love. You set up such high expectations for couples navigating the rocky road to happily ever after. Oh sure, it’s a gas to celebrate you during that first blush of new love. But what about the long-haulers? The marriages crossing the two- and three-decade marks? What kind of romantic gesture is appropriate after you’ve raised a couple kids together? Survived cancer? Endured a pandemic?

The nitty-gritty reality of “till death us do part” is the topic of Heather Havrilesky’s new collection of linked essays, “Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage” (Harper Collins, $27.99). Filled with barbed humor and hilarious anecdotes drawn from her own marriage, it is a delightfully engaging love letter to matrimony that is both highly entertaining and profoundly insightful.

First a word about Havrilesky. I’ve been a major fan since the early 2000s when she was a TV critic for Salon. At the time I was obsessed with the HBO show “Six Feet Under,” and reading Havrilesky’s illuminating reviews every week gave me as much joy as watching the show itself. These were not your typical TV reviews, mind you. They were insightful and heartfelt, personally revealing and filled with compassion for the show’s tortured characters, and for herself in the process.

It seemed like an odd choice for a writer of her gifts when she began writing the Ask Polly advice column for New York magazine’s The Cut (and now Substack). It makes sense to me now, of course, because Ask Polly is not your typical advice column. Havrilesky’s essay-length answers are filled with sharp humor, hard-earned wisdom and boatloads of empathy.

“Foreverland” is not her first book, but it’s hands-down her best. I read much of it on a plane and got some funny looks when I couldn’t stop laughing. And yet, by the time I finished the last chapter, I was full on weeping — thankfully in the privacy of my home.

That is Havrilesky’s superpower. She loosens you up with self-deprecating humor about her own mishaps and anxieties, and then she shivs you in the ribs with some wisdom that leaves you gasping for breath.

In “Foreverland,” she describes married coupledom as “a two-headed gargoyle, chasing its own tail, disobedient and conflicted,” and she mines the moments when she feels less than loving toward her husband.

“Why is this person always the same, and always in the way — a mumbling roadblock, a pointy Lego brick underfoot, a smelly heap of laundry blocking the bathroom door — and also, somehow, the only path back to sanity? How do you push aside your hatred and dig for your love, when it feels easier and more fun to just write the guy off forever, move your stuff into a big van, pack up the dogs and the crying kids, leave this sad specimen alone in the dust of a life you’ve clearly outgrown? Maybe the next one will be less defensive when he’s mad.”

That kind of talk set off a maelstrom of social media outrage over a similarly themed column Havrilesky wrote for the New York Times late last year. “Why don’t you just get divorced already!” was the gist of the feedback she received.

But “Foreverland” makes clear why she doesn’t get divorced. She clearly loves her husband; she just happens to want to kill him sometimes. Who can’t relate? And besides, why quit now when she’s finally discovered the secret to a successful marriage?

“Marriages survive on a wave of forgiveness,” she writes. “And marriages die when you can’t forgive yourself.”

Books Georgians should read

The Georgia Center for the Book has announced its 2022 list of Books All Georgians Should Read. It includes “Chronicling Stankonia” by Regina Bradley; “The Parted Earth” by Anjali Enjeti; “Mother Mary Comes to Me: A Popculture Poetry Anthology” edited by Karen Head and Collin Kelley; “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois” by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers; “A Night at the Sweet Gum Head” by Martin Padgett; “Wild Spectacle: Seeking Wonders in a World Beyond Humans” by Janisse Ray; “Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South” by Winfred Rembert (as told to Erin I. Kelly); “Peach State: Poems” by Adrienne Su; “Memorial Drive” by Natasha Trethewey; “Monster in the Middle” by Tiphanie Yanique.

The 2022 list of Books All Young Georgians Should Read includes “The Strange Birds of Flannery O’Connor” by Amy Alznauer; “Name Tags and Other Sixth-Grade Disasters” by Ginger Garrett; “Beasts of Prey” by Ayana Gray; “Theo TheSaurus: The Dinosaur Who Loved Big Words” by Shelli R. Johannes; “Why We Fly” by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal; “Run: Book One” by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, L. Fury and Nate Powell; “Needle & Thread” by David Pinckney; “Fast Pitch” by Nic Stone; “We Are All Under One Wide Sky” by Deborah Wiles and “There’s No Ham in Hamburger” by Kim Zachman.

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Contact her at and follow her on Twitter at @svanatten.