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How Juvenile Fiction Predicts Relationships--and Divorce

My favorite books growing up, the ones I happily read over and over, were Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising...
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My favorite books growing up, the ones I happily read over and over, were Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series, a five-part mythological mystery adventure series set in post-war Britain and Wales, where a small troupe of plucky kids overcomes an ancient evil with the help of their Merlin-like great uncle. I would read all five books in order, savoring each one, then after spending a bit of time reading other books (to see if they were anywhere near as great), I would go back and read them again.

Having favorite books as children is important as we develop adult relationships, too. In college, one of the standard questions I asked new acquaintances was what their favorite books were growing up. If their eyes lit up and they started jabbering wildly about their most beloved books, I knew that we could possibly be friends--though maybe not best friends if they thought My Friend Flicka was the best book they'd ever read. Yet friendship was still possible between us because we shared an essential type of imagination, whereas with those who didn't love fiction as a child it was not.

Which is why I was mystified by the answer my first love, let's call him Chester, gave to my all-important reading question. Chester was an imaginative, adventurous fellow, but he said that he didn't have a favorite book or author growing up.

"Well, I mean, what were some of the titles that you read the most?" I asked on more than one occasion.

"I read the Horatio Hornblower books several times, those were good. I read the Swiss Family Robinson, Treasure Island--I read lots of books," Chester replied almost defensively, "but I wouldn't say I had a favorite." He was certainly well-read, no doubt about it, but where was the gleam in his eyes, the sharp intake of breath as he described a book that had truly inspired him as a boy? I thought it odd, but took him at his word and chalked it up to It Takes All Kinds.

Eventually Chester and I got married and had children, and I thrilled to watch each of them fall in love with their own favorite books once they started reading. I figured that as long as they were arguing passionately about which was the better series, the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, they would probably turn out just fine.

As our children became teenagers, though, things between Chester and me grew more difficult. What had started for me as a vive la différence kind of marriage was degenerating into a "this strange guy and his intolerable habits" scenario. I started reading fiction again, which I'd had no time for while raising young children. Not just any fiction, either--I took up the lengthy, ambitious James Clavell novels set in the Far East. I began with Shōgun and worked my way forward chronologically from the 17th century to the present.

Then a funny thing happened. I was reading King Rat, Clavell's novel about prisoners in a Japanese POW camp during World War II, when Chester's eyes lit up. "Oh, I loved that book as a kid. I must have read it over a dozen times, and never got tired of it. King Rat, what a brilliant book!"

I was stunned. "Really?" I asked cautiously. "What did you like about it?"

"Well, the main character is just so smart! He outwits all the officers, has a hand in every black market deal on the island, keeps his men alive by being daring and clever, and basically thrives in an intolerable situation." Chester face was glowing, his hands effortlessly animating his speech. My heart sank.

"But Chester, this book is about a sociopath! It's like Hogan's Heroes on steroids, true, but the guy is only out for himself and doesn't care about anyone or anything. He cruelly manipulates his fellow prisoners, is uniformly hated by everyone, and ends up a lonely, ostracized pariah. Really, that's the book you loved as a kid?"

I tried not to let my disappointment show, but I'm afraid it was evident. Here, finally, was the answer to a question I had been asking Chester all the years I'd known him. I had never given up searching for that clue to his early psyche, and now that he had revealed it, I was more troubled than ever.

Chester must have realized that he'd said too much, because he shrugged and walked away with a look that said that I would never understand. Later on he tried to backtrack, saying that King Rat was just another of the many books he had read and been influenced by as a kid. I pretended to believe him and let it go, but I never forgot the gleam in his eye I had glimpsed that day.

Inevitably, I guess, our marriage unraveled a few years later. Its demise is a long story--but entertaining!--that I will write about some other time. One of the things it taught me, though, is how right I'd been about what we read as kids. At first I believed Chester when he said he still cared about me even though we were breaking up, but I was deluding myself. I still imagined us as part of the same plucky group of kids who were working together to combat evil, whereas he was involved in a complex psychological thriller where only he would emerge the winner. Too bad he never stopped to consider how his story ends.

At the end of The Dark Is Rising books, the kids prevail in their quest--that is the good news at the end of this particular story. I never would have guessed that children's fiction would be a lifeline during a long, drawn-out divorce, but it absolutely has been. So here are two essential pieces of relationship advice: first, read a lot of great fiction while you're growing up. Second, look for partners who shared those early delights and inspirations, but only get involved if you've been on the same team from the start.

This piece is excerpted from a memoir-in-progress, Leaving Hotel California. Subscribe on Kindle here.

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