Rarely has a newlywed delivered a more withering assessment of marriage than Charlotte Brontë. “It is a solemn and strange and perilous thing for a woman to become a wife,” she wrote to a friend — fresh off her honeymoon, no less.
A number of recent books have taken up her argument, looking anew at marriage and how it benefits women (or mostly doesn’t), as well as how our ideas about courtship and intimacy have evolved: “All the Single Ladies” by Rebecca Traister, “Labor of Love” by Moira Weigel, “Spinster” by Kate Bolick and “Future Sex” by Emily Witt, to name just a few. They’ve taken a skeptical and lively interest in the public pressures shaping our private bonds. In many cases, they puzzle over one question: Why is this institution, long regarded as desirable, even compulsory, falling out of favor around the world?
Inspired by a similar curiosity, two new books — “Leftover in China” and “The Heart Is a Shifting Sea” — look to China and India, respectively, to assess how marriage withstands breakneck economic growth, social change and the increasing financial independence of women. (Spoiler: badly.)
The books take opposite approaches. “Leftover in China,” the flimsier of the two, examines the phenomenon of sheng nu, or “leftover women” — highly educated, ambitious women who cannot find partners, or so the story goes. The author, Roseann Lake, a correspondent for The Economist, describes the dizzying rise of recent generations of Chinese women with a dizzying tempo of her own.
Lake zips through history. In 1949, 75 percent of Chinese women were illiterate. Today, China has one of the lowest rates of female illiteracy in the world — as well as the highest percentage of self-made female billionaires. She explains that the draconian one-child policy meant that families had to pour their resources into their only child, even if that child was a girl (and escaped sex-selective abortion, that is). Those daughters have grown into accomplished, tragically single women. They have so outpaced men professionally they can’t find suitable partners.
Is that it? Or is it that their ambition itself has rendered them undesirable? Or that dating is such a novel concept in China that men and women don’t know how to talk to each other? Lake entertains all these ideas in a confused fashion. What she doesn’t do is give sufficient space to Chinese women to explain their decisions and desires themselves. When that happens, in a fleeting scene halfway through the book, a more intriguing picture emerges. The female founder of a dating website tells her: “Most of these so-called leftover women have voluntarily chosen their lifestyle.” Lake scarcely grapples with the implication of this statement — how could she? It’s too at odds with her story, which has so firmly cast her subjects as victims and not agents.
In “The Heart Is a Shifting Sea,” Elizabeth Flock, a reporter for PBS NewsHour, offers a study as patient and careful as Lake’s is cursory. She followed three married couples in Mumbai for almost a decade: one couple is Marwari Hindu, another Muslim, a third Tamil Brahmin. In the mode of Katherine Boo and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Flock absents herself from the narrative, allowing us to enter the lives of her subjects and witness moments of almost unbearable intimacy.