James Salter’s Light Years (1975) is a generous, intimate portrayal of a family that bends and splinters under the weight of its own differences and desires. This book exacerbated anxieties about marriage that I didn’t even know I had; thankfully, the novel’s emotional devastation is delivered in seductive, glorious prose. In the passage below, a sort of serpentine sense of doom winds its way around what is otherwise a tranquil domestic moment; this is Salter’s skill at play:
Their life was two things: it was a life, more or less – at least it was the preparation for one – and it was an illustration of life for their children. They had never expressed this to one another, but they were agreed upon it, and these two versions were entwined somehow so that one being hidden, the other was revealed. They wanted their children, in those years, to have the impossible, not in the sense of the unachievable but in the sense of the pure.
Children are our crop, our fields, our earth. They are birds let loose into darkness. They are errors renewed. Still, they are the only source from which may be drawn a life more successful, more knowing than our own. Somehow they will do one thing, take one step further, they will see the summit. We believe in it, the radiance that streams from the future, from days we will not see. Children must live, must triumph. Children must die; that is an idea we cannot accept.
There is no happiness like this happiness: quiet mornings, light from the river, the weekend ahead. They lived a Russian life, a rich life, interwoven, in which the misfortune of one, a failure, illness, would stagger them all. It was like a garment, this life. Its beauty was outside, its warmth within.