For Michaele Weissman, the attraction to John MeIngailis was instantaneous: “He was tall and slender, with blond hair and a shaggy mustache. His face was angular. Nordic. With slate-blue eyes. He spoke English with a barely discernible accent. I thought he was gorgeous.” Yet even after 40 years of marriage, Weissman is mystified by her husband’s moods, their fights and his obsession with all things Latvian.
Weissman and MeIngailis are quite different, or so she thinks: She’s eight years younger, Jewish, American and a journalist, while MeIngailis, who escaped Latvia with his family as a child during WWII, is an MIT scientist, ardently attached to his native folklore and his refugee community. His devotion to Latvian rye bread (a dark, chewy, sourdough) perplexes her. “You wake up married to a rye-bread-loving stranger, and slowly you realize that your husband doesn’t want to be like you. . . . in fact he wants you to be like him!” she writes in an early chapter. “From this nexus of unresolvable difference the decades-long battle is engaged. . . . in time you realize this whirling dervish of mixed emotion, of love and fury, of compatibility, attraction, tenderness and contention: this is your life and your marriage.”
The Rye Bread Marriage: How I Found Happiness With a Partner I’ll Never Understand offers multiple stories: of Weissman’s growth as she seeks to understand MeIngailis’ eccentricities and her own; of their marriage, parenthood and stepparenthood; and of Latvian rye bread and its singular place in Latvian history and culture. This voicey, often funny memoir is comprised of 125 chapters of varying length, some just a page, some even shorter. Here’s the entirety of chapter 41, “Marriage: Second Definition”: “Marriage: An intimate relationship existing on a continuum between love and hate, with partners perpetually suspended between the two.” Some of the chapters form short, lyrical essays; some are more journalistic. The memoir really shines when Weissman recounts research visits to Latvia and Germany (where MeIngailis’ family took refuge at the end of the war) that led her to a deeper understanding of MeIngailis’ family history and the trauma of war and exile, as well as Latvian history and its unique bread.
The Rye Bread Marriage brings to mind two other quirky, memorable memoirs: Julie Klam’s The Almost Legendary Morris Sisters, and Amy Kraus Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. “How I Found Happiness with a Partner I’ll Never Understand” may be its subtitle, but by the time we reach the book’s lovely, life-affirming ending, it is clear that both partners do understand one another.