Alison's Reviews > Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage

Marriage, a History by Stephanie Coontz
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's review
Apr 08, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: history, gender, non-fiction

This book was one of those which was simultaneously highly engaging and very frustrating. Coontz zooms through history at a dizzying pace, tossing characterisations left and right as she goes. She follows a technique that particularly irks me, that of using an anecdote or a single statistic to illustrate each point, before moving on. The use of anecdotes is particularly frustrating - often individual cases, for example, are recorded because they were exceptional, not the norm. Coontz doesn't have time to discuss how typical the incident she is discussing is. Where she was touching on history I was familiar with, the complete simplification of complex and often contradictory phenomena was clear, and cast some doubt on the rest of the material. At the same time, the book is extensively referenced, and Coontz is clearly familiar with vast amounts of research, it's just in compressing it down to her interpretation, there is not enough space to understand how others might differ.

It is also annoying tha Coontz defines marriage fairly broadly in the historic sections of the book, including most domestic arrangements used to raise children, but then very narrowly in the modern section, where cohabitation is viewed as a non-marital arrangement. It helps with the "marriage crisis" marketing, but it has an internal inconsistency that impacts a little on her argument.

I kept thinking that really, to pull off a real history of marriage, you needed a multi-volume series. Aside from making it hard to discuss complexities, the book moves so quickly it becomes dizzying to an ageing brain like mine :) Pre-marital sex is in, and then it is out, and then, hang on, are we in again?; marriages without churching are ok, then they are outlawed, but kinda not.. It starts to get hard to keep track. I suspect this is a combination of the compressed simplicity of trends that varied over time and place, and the breakneck pace.

It may come as a surprise at this point that I loved the book. Despite all the shortcomings, Coontz presents at least a compelling case that marriage has varied widely in nature and scope. That components like monogamy; church and state sanctity; permanence and gender roles have all changed in the last millennium, never mind throughout history. The book starts to slow down once modern "love" marriage is reached, and Coontz' comments on modern marriage "crises" are interesting, and informed by a solid historical and anthropological understanding of how societies organise into units to raise children. Her scathing deconstruction of the myth of modern women "desperate" for marriage ("desperate, she points out, is being willing to marry a man who beats you, is physically repulsive, or who runs a high risk of giving you syphilis because you have no choice) is worth reading the book for alone.

It left me with a list of things from the notes to follow up, which is always a good sign.

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Reading Progress

April 8, 2012 – Started Reading
April 8, 2012 – Shelved
April 8, 2012 –
April 11, 2012 –
April 15, 2012 –
April 21, 2012 – Finished Reading

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