The Marriage of the Sea is Jane Alison’s second work of fiction after The Love Artist. Set in the cities of Venice and New Orleans, the primary plot revolves around the workings of everyday relationships and the factors that can make or break them.
While there is no central character in the novel, much of the action is dictated by one wealthy, physically weakening patron of the arts, Oswaldo. He lives in a crumbling palatial house in Venice by the water and runs a foundation that gives out grants to artistic causes. One such grant is awarded to Anton in New Orleans. Trying to jumpstart a nonexistent career, Anton hesitantly leaves his wife, Josephine, behind in New Orleans and arrives in Venice to teach architecture to a group of disinterested students. Wife Josephine is back in New Orleans trying to get pregnant by artificial insemination. Her world is dictated by her biological clock and slowly unravels with every unsuccessful attempt.
Thrown into the story is the artist, Lach, who decides he has had enough with his wife, Vera, a fellow artist. He leaves Vera for Francesca, who is incidentally also in Venice. Vera, in the meantime, receives an art grant from Oswaldo and also leaves for Venice. Then there is Max, who flies to New Orleans to pursue the evasive Lucinde, but Lucinde flits back and forth between New Orleans and her old mentor, Oswaldo.
Despite the presence of many characters, Alison never makes the story too complicated. We glimpse just small vignettes of each of the character’s lives. Seemingly disconnected lives come around full circle and end up influencing the patterns of others. All of Alison’s characters seem to be adrift fighting personal battles, yet strangely at peace with life’s upheavals. One of the most beautiful segments of the book is Josephine’s fight with infertility. Her increasing desperation as she injects herself with thousands of dollars worth of “treatments” is portrayed beautifully by Alison.
The cities of New Orleans and Venice — both strongly defined by water — shine here. The descriptions of the two cities are evocative, yet at no point in the novel do they distract from the story:
Lach shut his eyes and deeply breathed the ozone air, the sun cool gold on his left cheek. He imagined the complexities of Venice and its slinking muddy waterways all around him, toward the sun, the ordinary world with refineries and autostrade and trains. He looked up, squinting, the light slanting into the water. A vaporetto was making its slow way toward the dock, and he watched it advance, crests of clear water and froth at its nose.
The biggest strength of The Marriage of the Sea lies in its superbly tight prose. Alison does a brilliant job of telling a tale with an impressive economy of words; a chapter is hardly ever more than two pages long. The Marriage of the Sea ably shows us how relationships built with no solid anchors can easily break free and come to rest on the unlikeliest of shores.