When a man loves a woman

She was bright. She was lovely. She was deeply caring. But most of all, she was Alice. About Alice, Calvin Trillin's moving tribute to his wife of almost 40 years, is a slender volume that packs a hefty punch. Anyone who wants to know what it might be like to love the same person for most of a lifetime has only to pick up this little book to find out.

Of course, that's not to say that Trillin wasn't already on record as a notably doting husband. He tells of a reader who once wrote him to say that she sometimes looked at her boyfriend and wondered, "But will he love me like Calvin loves Alice?"

Throughout Trillin's career as an author and staff writer for the New Yorker, Alice made regular appearances in his writing, often playing the straight man, "the dietitian in sensible shoes," as she put it, to his goofy husband. But the truth, Trillin writes, is that this was a woman with "a child's sense of wonderment ... the only adult I ever knew who might respond to encountering a deer on a forest path by saying, 'Wowsers!' "

Physically, Alice was a beauty. (If you doubt it, flip the book over and check the photo on the back jacket cover.) But in "About Alice," Trillin's focus on the inner charms of the woman he knew: the competent and caring daughter who became the protector of her somewhat feckless parents; the devoted mother who lived the maxim that "your children are either the center of your life or they're not, and the rest is commentary"; and the wife who so inspired her mate that he could say, "I wrote this for Alice. Actually, I wrote everything for Alice."

Although it's impossible to read this book without aching over the depth of Trillin's loss (and it's also difficult to read about the cancer – and the fear thereof – that shadowed so much of Alice's adult life), for the most part this is simply a warm and gentle tale.

Trillin tells of the night that he and Alice first connected at a party. Later, she would tell him, "You have never again been as funny as you were that night." "You mean I peaked in December of 1963" he asked her in dismay. "I'm afraid so," she replied. He never stopped, however, trying to impress her, and Alice, apparently without trying, was constantly impressing him.

She loved beautiful things, didn't care much about money, and readily engaged in the lives of those around her. Home renovation projects enthralled her, and Trillin says he might see her walking through the home of friends making "a gesture she used when she was saying something like 'You have to open all of this up,' " which was "a gesture remarkably similar to the gesture you'd use to toss money into the wind."

She was not afraid to express herself forthrightly and occasionally even undiplomatically. Once, after hearing George Pataki speak at a Yale alumni function, she told him, "That was one of the best speeches I've ever heard ... Why on earth are you a Republican?"

After Alice's passing in 2001, Trillin received a letter from a friend who told him, "I always thought of you as a wonderful guy, but I still couldn't figure how you managed to get Alice." The answer, however, is obvious. Just look at the way he writes about her.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to Marjorie Kehe.

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