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9780865475489

Cleaving: The Story of a Marriage

Covington, Dennis; Covington, Vicki

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"Marriage is like a rain forest," Vicki Covington writes in Cleaving. "The story of a marriage contains all that grows in the canopy, all that is visible from an aerial, or public, view. The understory of a marriage is the place where . . . we struggle, fight, and conceive. It's the place where compost is made, where anything can grow, including forgiveness." Told in the authors' alternating voices, Cleaving is both the story and the understory of a marriage.

Childhood acquaintances, Vicki and Dennis meet again in their twenties and wed. they "promise each other nothing" and get more than they'd bargained for: alcoholism, infidelity, infertility, uncertainty. tumult gives way to sobriety, parenthood, and meaningful work, but a yearning remains. In a quest to root themselves in the larger world, they embark on a mission to dig water wells in Central America, assuaging a spiritual thirst by addressing a practical need. Yet even this is part of the story-the visible, overarching canopy-of the marriage. The understory-and the triumph of this haunting book, which is neither sentimental nor cynical-is its portrayal of the eddying of passion through the institution that enshrines but cannot contain it.

A soulful and unsparing portrait of the forces that threaten-and sustain-a relationship over time.

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Review:

One doesn't know whether to admire Vicki and Dennis Covington for writing Cleaving or to shudder and hide one's head in the sand. Written in alternating voices, this tag-team memoir draws a thorough portrait of one marriage, complete with decades' worth of adultery, drugs, alcoholism, abortion, and sin. In the Covingtons' case, these bohemian carryings-on come mixed with a goodly portion of old-time religion. After going sober, the couple settled down to raising daughters, attending church, doing good works, and writing books (they claim 7 between them, including Dennis's thoughtful Salvation on Sand Mountain, a finalist for the National Book Award). They even spearheaded a church mission to drill wells in Central America, a project which here yields not only life-giving water but also a rich flood of marital metaphor.

Yet their problems didn't go away. Charged with writing an inspirational book about marriage, the Covingtons found their own union once again in serious disarray. Rather than making themselves look good, they chose to tell the absolute truth about what had passed between them, and in the process they created this unusual memoir, an unflinching look at the forces that bind a couple together as well as those that rend them apart. After all, as Vicki points out, the word cleave--taken from the Biblical injunction for a man to leave his mother and father--can mean either to cling to or to divide, "as by a cutting blow." In their case, it meant both: "Love plays us like an accordion. Together, apart, together, apart..." People talk about honesty as if that were a literary virtue in itself. It's not, of course, but this excruciatingly honest memoir has many virtues of its own, including some lovely, unfussy writing and a steadfast refusal to look away when that would be the easiest thing to do. Whether all this spiritual soul-baring makes you feel compassionate or just queasy is, however, a matter of taste. --Mary Park

From the Inside Flap:

Marriage is like a rainforest. You have the canopy and the understory. The story of a marriage contains all that grows in the canopy, all that is visible from an aerial, or public, view. The understory of a marriage is the place where other things thrive. It is in the understory that we struggle, fight, and conceive. It is the place where we toss things, where compost is made, where anything can grow, including forgiveness. --from Cleaving

Told in the authors' alternating voices, Cleaving is both the story and the understory of a marriage, unique in its particulars but universal in its resonance. Childhood acquaintances, Vicki and Dennis meet again in their twenties and wed. Like many of their generation, they "promise each other nothing" and get more than they'd bargained for: alcoholism, infidelity, infertility, uncertainty. Gradually, tumult gives way to sobriety, parenthood, and meaningful work, but a sense of yearning remains. In a quest to root themselves in the larger world, they embark on a mission to hand-drill water wells in Central America, attempting to slake a spiritual thirst by addressing a practical need.

Yet even this turns out to be part of the story--the visible, overarching canopy--of the marriage. The understory--and the triumph of this haunting book, which succumbs to neither sentimentality nor cynicism--is its portrayal of the unpredictable eddying of passion through the institution that enshrines but cannot contain it.

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Covington, Dennis; Covington, Vicki Author
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