In Naoise Dolan’s addictive, rubbernecking disaster story about love, engaged 20-something Dubliners wrestle with intimacy and commitment as their wedding day approaches.
Oxford-educated Luke’s most striking characteristic is his obvious ambivalence. His fiancée Celine’s most singular trait, apart from being a dedicated, almost single-minded, internationally recognized concert pianist, is her willful denial in the face of Luke’s transgressions. Even Luke marvels that she puts up with him: “You’d think Celine would have seen my early diffidence as a warning. Whatever about the unanswered texts, me literally saying ‘I don’t want a relationship’ is, perhaps, a red flag. But Celine has never met sheet music she couldn’t crack.”
This dynamic is maddening at first. But, like reality television, relational trainwrecks are compelling. The first sign of trouble is that Luke and Celine’s engagement begins, excruciatingly, with what feels like a shrug rather than a decision. Discussing their hypothetical relationship limits, Luke confesses, “if I thought we’d never get married. Or that level of commitment. If I knew that wasn’t going to happen, then . . . .” When Celine attempts to offer reassurance by suggesting that she “probably” wants to be with him forever, as if staring down a dare, Luke asks the question.
Though The Happy Couple will inevitably be compared to Sally Rooney’s Normal People, its wry voice and cleverly executed Rashomon-like structure, revisiting pivotal events and foundational cracks in Celine and Luke’s relationship from their perspectives as well as those of their closest friends and family, make it a standout. Bit by bit, in lean, ironic prose that packs powerful insight, Dolan reveals the humanity and vulnerability of all parties involved, including brilliant sections from the perspectives of Luke’s best man and former boyfriend Archie, and Celine’s sister Phoebe.
We don’t see what Luke is thinking for a long time, and he’s easy to hate when he’s merely reflected in other people’s emotional wreckage. When, after 100 pages, he finally comes into focus, his sensitivity and depth of feeling are shocking. The closer we look, the more human these characters become, and the more it hurts to see Celine and Luke stumble away from each other. Dolan’s challenging and well-crafted rewriting of the marriage plot has much to reveal about love and perspective.