First Husband by Antonya Nelson, 2013
The magic trick:
Making the first husband a main character in the story through implied impact
Yes, we have love stories all week, but no, they’re not all happy.
This one isn’t necessarily a tear-jerker. Lovey, our protagonist, is married, and she does have an ex-step-grandchild on whom to dote. But there is an emptiness here, an uneasiness. She may not be miserable but neither is she happy.
Her first husband is long gone, out of the picture years before, but he casts a long shadow over her life still. It’s a remarkable storytelling trick. At no point does it ever feel like the first husband is a main character. He comes up here and there in backstory, but mostly his impact is implied. But what an implication. And that’s quite a trick on Nelson’s part.
Caleb was already laying out the game board, counting money, and stacking up the Chance cards. He looked like his grandfather, Lovey’s first husband—the same thick copper-colored hair, the large brown eyes and plush lips. Her first husband had been forty-five, at the tail end of his fruitful handsomeness, when she married him but still moving through the world with the confidence of a man who’d bedded a lot of women, all but the first few—when he was a beginner, on the receiving end of a romantic education—younger than him; he was a serial seducer. Lovey had been his third wife; perhaps she could have predicted that she would not succeed where two others had failed, but that was the nature of love, and of youth, and the combination, youthful love—they made you arrogant, or stubborn, impervious to the lessons of others.
If you paid attention to all the lessons of others, you might never do anything.