Modern Marriage, by Filip Vukašin

Modern Marriage, the debut novel of Melbourne doctor Filip Vukašin is a very contemporary novel.  It couldn’t have been written even a decade ago because it deals with issues arising from the cruelty of the 2017 same-sex marriage plebiscite; and with the business of cosmetic surgery, which in recent years has morphed from face-lifts in middle age, to routine sculpting of the human body, both male and female.  For people who subscribe to the values inherent in the cosmetic industry, the pressure to conform to the perfect body image has become relentless, while for some, the quest for perfection crosses over into other aspects of life as well.  Perfect body, perfect clothes, perfect job, perfect spouse, perfect car, perfect address, perfect child, and even a perfect nanny… More than a domestic drama, Modern Marriage explores the fallout after a married man is found inexplicably unconscious in a gay sauna.  Klara is a cosmetic surgeon living in the plush beachside suburb of Elwood in Melbourne.  She has a thriving business with a wealthy clientele, and with her business partner Tomas, they have expensive plans to renovate it.  On the domestic front, however, things are not quite so rosy: the plans Klara and her husband Dante had for parenthood are awry, and Klara fears that Dante’s new fitness regime and muscularity are subtle signs that she should be doing more to maintain her body too.  (And of course, in her profession, she is expected to look more sculpted than she is, a problem that Tomas has noticed but not yet found a tactful way to broach the subject). The discovery that Dante has been ‘playing away’ in the gay scene is a betrayal that brings with it fear of STD, embarrassment that she should have known, and — despite having gay friends like Tomas and his partner Alex who are planning the wedding they may not be able to have — she feels a disabling anxiety about how Dante’s conservative family will react if they find out, and she doesn’t want to hurt them with the truth.  For all the apparent openness about LGBTIQ diversity in contemporary society, Klara is forced to confront the realisation that some men remain ‘in the closet’ out of fear of family rejection and a desire to conform. When Dante’s life support is switched off, everything falls apart for Klara.  Swamped by questions that Dante can never answer now, and missing the tender love and care of the man she had trusted, she is devastated and angry.  Surrounded by his grieving family, she has to endure the torment of a eulogy that is a lie.  Her bossy, nosy, self-important sister-in-law Rachel forces herself on Klara as a grief counsellor without having any idea of the complexity of Klara’s emotions, which manifest themselves in extreme forms of secret self-harm.  What she does to herself is distressing to read but is an authentic portrayal of how someone who seems to have it all can be all on her own in a time of crisis. Rachel is convincingly hilarious in her awfulness and offers light relief in a book tackling serious issues.  So sure that as a psychologist she is an expert on human behaviour, she barges into Klara’s house, interrogates her, dreams up an entire crime podcast (with accompanying fame) to account for Klara’s behaviour, and then sets up a family dinner party as the kind of denouement scene that features in crime shows where the entire cast assembles for The Big Reveal. Along with her assumptions about Klara, Rachel also misreads her MIL’s reactions completely, and, confronted by her miscalculations of the situation, tries to manipulate her MIL into taking over the guilt.  This woman is a nightmare, with an uncanny ability to avoid meaningful self-reflection: The mystery that continues to nag at Rachel revolves around being proven wrong in her hypothesis of Klara and missing the actual pathology.  What does this mean about her as a therapist, about her instincts as a sleuth?  The family couldn’t possibly start blaming her for leading them down the path of questioning Klara and upsetting her.  That would be grossly unfair.  (p.303) Rachel is indefatigable so it takes a dramatic event to rein her script: This isn’t how the podcast was supposed to go.  This is all wrong.  How did it all go so wrong?  Whose fault is it?  When could someone have intervened?  Like a line-up of suspects she sees Mitra, Dante, Marko… herself. No no no. (p.310) Oh yes, yes yes Rachel!! Modern Marriage is an entertaining first novel that tackles serious themes without being heavy-handed.  You can read an extract here. Author: Filip VukašinTitle: Modern MarriageCover design by Lisa WhitePublisher: Affirm Press, 2021ISBN: 9781922419248, pbk., 315 pagesReview copy courtesy of Affirm Press.

Modern Marriage, by Filip Vukašin

Modern Marriage, the debut novel of Melbourne doctor Filip Vukašin is a very contemporary novel.  It couldn’t have been written even a decade ago because it deals with issues arising from the cruelty of the 2017 same-sex marriage plebiscite; and with the business of cosmetic surgery, which in recent years has morphed from face-lifts in middle age, to routine sculpting of the human body, both male and female.  For people who subscribe to the values inherent in the cosmetic industry, the pressure to conform to the perfect body image has become relentless, while for some, the quest for perfection crosses over into other aspects of life as well.  Perfect body, perfect clothes, perfect job, perfect spouse, perfect car, perfect address, perfect child, and even a perfect nanny…

More than a domestic drama, Modern Marriage explores the fallout after a married man is found inexplicably unconscious in a gay sauna.  Klara is a cosmetic surgeon living in the plush beachside suburb of Elwood in Melbourne.  She has a thriving business with a wealthy clientele, and with her business partner Tomas, they have expensive plans to renovate it.  On the domestic front, however, things are not quite so rosy: the plans Klara and her husband Dante had for parenthood are awry, and Klara fears that Dante’s new fitness regime and muscularity are subtle signs that she should be doing more to maintain her body too.  (And of course, in her profession, she is expected to look more sculpted than she is, a problem that Tomas has noticed but not yet found a tactful way to broach the subject).

The discovery that Dante has been ‘playing away’ in the gay scene is a betrayal that brings with it fear of STD, embarrassment that she should have known, and — despite having gay friends like Tomas and his partner Alex who are planning the wedding they may not be able to have — she feels a disabling anxiety about how Dante’s conservative family will react if they find out, and she doesn’t want to hurt them with the truth.  For all the apparent openness about LGBTIQ diversity in contemporary society, Klara is forced to confront the realisation that some men remain ‘in the closet’ out of fear of family rejection and a desire to conform.

When Dante’s life support is switched off, everything falls apart for Klara.  Swamped by questions that Dante can never answer now, and missing the tender love and care of the man she had trusted, she is devastated and angry.  Surrounded by his grieving family, she has to endure the torment of a eulogy that is a lie.  Her bossy, nosy, self-important sister-in-law Rachel forces herself on Klara as a grief counsellor without having any idea of the complexity of Klara’s emotions, which manifest themselves in extreme forms of secret self-harm.  What she does to herself is distressing to read but is an authentic portrayal of how someone who seems to have it all can be all on her own in a time of crisis.

Rachel is convincingly hilarious in her awfulness and offers light relief in a book tackling serious issues.  So sure that as a psychologist she is an expert on human behaviour, she barges into Klara’s house, interrogates her, dreams up an entire crime podcast (with accompanying fame) to account for Klara’s behaviour, and then sets up a family dinner party as the kind of denouement scene that features in crime shows where the entire cast assembles for The Big Reveal. Along with her assumptions about Klara, Rachel also misreads her MIL’s reactions completely, and, confronted by her miscalculations of the situation, tries to manipulate her MIL into taking over the guilt.  This woman is a nightmare, with an uncanny ability to avoid meaningful self-reflection:

The mystery that continues to nag at Rachel revolves around being proven wrong in her hypothesis of Klara and missing the actual pathology.  What does this mean about her as a therapist, about her instincts as a sleuth?  The family couldn’t possibly start blaming her for leading them down the path of questioning Klara and upsetting her.  That would be grossly unfair.  (p.303)

Rachel is indefatigable so it takes a dramatic event to rein her script:

This isn’t how the podcast was supposed to go.  This is all wrong.  How did it all go so wrong?  Whose fault is it?  When could someone have intervened?  Like a line-up of suspects she sees Mitra, Dante, Marko… herself.

No no no. (p.310)

Oh yes, yes yes Rachel!!

Modern Marriage is an entertaining first novel that tackles serious themes without being heavy-handed.  You can read an extract here.

Author: Filip Vukašin
Title: Modern Marriage
Cover design by Lisa White
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2021
ISBN: 9781922419248, pbk., 315 pages
Review copy courtesy of Affirm Press.