Recipes for a Perfect Marriage

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I read the Large Print version and that is the edition on which the page numbers are based. Because I expect most people don't read the Large Print, I will attempt to reference chapter location as well.

This story is really two-in-one in what seems to be a style that is becoming more popular of alternating chapters along with time periods. So the first chapter is of Tressa and Dan and then the second is Bernadine and James and the alternating pattern continues through the end. Tressa is Bernadine's granddaughter so the time periods jump back and forth. Tressa lives in New York and Bernadine lives in Ireland so that is also a shift. I think I liked Tressa a bit more because she was modern, but I didn't dislike Bernadine. I never minded moving from one couple to the other. I was glad I didn't have to wait more than a chapter to get back to the other couple.

This book is very relate-able. According to Facebook, everyone else has a perfect marriage, right? But most of us have a very different life experience. Tressa is a much stronger, independent woman than her Grandmother so I understood her a little better. Bernadine said things like, "The speed at which a child grows is alarming; you grieve one passing stage to another with barely time to enjoy in between." (p. 306, mid-Ch. 30). With three children, two of which I thought were my last, one of the two of which I was much older and relished the role of mother more, I never felt like I grieved a stage of development. But I could relate to Bernadine's reflections on her grown daughter, "But from her late teens to mid-twenties Niamh turned from a headstrong girl who I worried for daily into a warm young woman." I couldn't have described my own daughter better.

This book is a light-hearted look at a heavy topic of how to navigate when mistakes are made and perceptions and expectations differ in a relationship. Perhaps the funniest moment was at the end of Ch. 13 (p. 137) when Tressa had agreed to sacrifice a work conference to attend a First Communion event with her new husband's family. She wasn't sure what she expected when she agreed but all she got was him flipping on the television. Chapter 27 was also humorous with Bernadine's obsession with tea cozies and insulting the Bishop.

On a scale of 1 - 5:

Sex: 3

Religion: 3

Gruesome: 0

Suspense: 3

Morality: 4

Sex - "The sex was fantastic; I won't go into the details but he loved every inch of my body in a way that astonished me." (p. 30) It's a book about marriages so sex is bound to be mentioned a few times but it is always light and quick.

Religion - the past couple is involved in their local church and there is even an event of a Papal visit. The religion is about as light and quick as the sex.

Gruesome - nothing to comment on

Suspense - Foreshadowing at the end of Ch. 20, "My wish for dramatic change did come true shortly after, but in a way that was to test my tolerance further still." - then we had to wait 11 pages to find out how. Ch. 22 also ends with a bit of foreshadowing and we have to wait an equally long chapter to see what happens. There was also suspense when, at 60, Bernadine finally made a choice about who she really wanted to commit to - was it too late? Would things work out? There was suspense when Tressa got a message about an accident. The suspense level was fun but far from nail-biting.

Morality - A married woman almost returns to bed with a former lover - going as far as getting a hotel room together. More than that the entire book is a veiled discourse on why commitment is important to a marriage and even beyond that, a life. Why is it important to be committed to our parents or our spouse (or our spouse's parent)? What does it say about the person who takes that commitment seriously.

A couple of times in the book they say they are out of buttermilk and I kept wondering why they didn't use a substitute. I discovered one a couple of years ago and ever since then I have never bought buttermilk again. You take a tablespoon of either white vinegar or lemon juice and put it in a 1-cup measure. Fill the rest of the measuring cup with milk, stir slightly and let it sit for 5 minutes. Voila!

In the Bernadine / James story it seemed like Niamh disappeared as a young girl when Grandpa came to live with them and then she was suddenly 25. (Maybe she went to the other book we read that also had a character named Niamh - Orphan Train.)

Discussion Questions

Make your own more / less about your town and an opposite place nearby as they did around the middle of Chapter 8, "more space - less room to breathe" (p. 82).

What was the best advice or observation you read about love?

"A mother draws a map for her child and places herself at the center of it. Her death wipes that map clean. She leaves you knowing you must redraw it to survive and yet not knowing where to start." (middle of Ch. 10, p. 103) If you have experienced the death of your mother, how do you feel about this metaphor?

If Bernie didn't love James, why did she feel she had to give him a child? (end of Ch. 14, p. 146)

Are you "needed" at family gatherings? Do you need your spouse at your family gatherings? (Ch. 15)

(Ch. 18, p. 175) "A man, when pushed to the limits of his patience, will usually show himself to be either stoic or violent." Do you agree? Are there other options?

Bernie said her mother, "...was religious, but she had very little faith." (p. 202, mid-Ch. 20). How is this possible?

Towards the end of Ch. 20 - reread the paragraph that beings with "All my life, I had been able to cut myself off..." then discuss aging and dreams. Can you identify with Bernadine? Did the author invent these feelings or might she or women she knows feel this way too?

On the seventh Sunday, in the middle of Ch. 21 (p. 214-215), Tressa starts a conversation in the car but then they arrived and "there was nothing [she] could do about it. [She] couldn't explode there, in the car, outside his mother's house. [she] just had to keep it together..." Why couldn't she explode? What does this say about her love / not love of Dan?

When Bernadine was taking care of her father she said, "The second time I thought he was dead and, I confess, I felt a flicker of relief." (Mid-Ch. 22, p. 223) Can you identify with her feelings? Have you ever been in a similar situation?

Bernadine felt torn between her adult dislike of her drunken father and a simultaneous childlike fear driving her to make all better. (middle to end of Ch. 22, p. 225) Have you ever felt caught like this? How did you resolve it?

Towards the beginning of Ch. 23 Tressa said, "If [they] were meant to be together, [she] would gladly have suffered boredom, indignity, awkwardness as part of [her] commitment to [their] marriage." (p. 230-231) Is this how it should be or is it romanticized?

Towards the end of Ch. 25 the author uses the word "pathos" to describe how a father looked at his daughter. How did this word choice affect your reading?

Discuss: "What we fear is endurable, it is usually the fear itself that is insufferable." (last pg. Ch. 25, p. 247)

If it is a choice between "the idealistic fantasy of wild passion, to the sometimes dull but always safe love of the married woman" (p. 297, Ch. 29 before middle) which do you choose?

Tressa had the power to hurt Dan but not the power to take it away. (p. 320, end Ch. 31) Does anyone?

Have you visited any small or large shrines? Compare and contrast. Which did you prefer?

Discuss the reunion between Michael and Bernadine. Was it worth all the build up? Would you change anything?

The book is divided into the following sections: Chemistry, Compromise, Sacrifice, Shared Joy, Endurance, Respect, Acceptance, Loyalty, Trust, Commitment, Wisdom. Are these all the elements of a perfect marriage? Are there any you could leave out? Any you would add?

"Trust is nothing when you have it... . Trusting someone is boring. It's a nonevent. But take it away and try living without trust - and suddenly your relationship is plunged into a living hellhole." (p. 370-371, near the beginning of Ch. 37) Thoughts? Experiences?

Do you agree that love grows through "living with the same person day in and day out for the rest of your life. You don't always FEEL like doing it, but you do it because you said that you would."? (p. 374, end of Ch. 37)

Read and discuss the last section of Chapter 40.

What was your favorite nugget of wisdom from the last chapter?

Theme Ideas

Obviously you could serve any of the recipes from the beginning of the sections, especially the Porter Cake, which is the one the author recommends most.

Serve chocolate muffins like when Tressa met Dan. (p. 29)

Serve "dainty potato cakes...spread [...] with butter and ...gooseberry jam" (p. 47) like Aunt Ann and Bernadine.

Serve Irish food including tayto crisps and Barry's tea, rhubarb tart and Brack cake. (beg. Ch. 9, p. 95)

Serve "sugar-pink iced cake with silver baubles laced around its edges" and "honey cake, ...sliced, drizzled with lemon icing, and set on two large trays covered with gingham napkins" like at the modern day First Communion (second section Ch. 15, p. 148)


Give guests an "I LOVE ST. PATRICK'S DAY IN YONKERS! tea towel. Start with a St. Patrick's Day themed towel and embroider or use fabric paint or markers to add the special message.

Paint rocks or other objects and put one of the section titles on each object. Invite your guests to take the one that they value the most, or need the most.