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Good but don't just read this
on 25 January 2013
This is a fascinating and comprehensive look at marriage in (mostly) the Western world over the last two millennia, with most of the attention reserved for the last 200 years.
I do have a problem with the scope, though. There is so much information and so many factual references in here that it can sometimes read as if they have been jumbled together, without elegantly leading to a conclusion. It can dip in and out of different cultures in different periods to make a point, which is useful to substantiate her argument that humans aren't bound by one form of marriage or another, but can be confusing to follow. The author has enough content to make the book twice as long and maybe it would have benefited from either being cut down and focusing more, or extended into two volumes - it is certainly interesting enough.
With a book that covers so much ground, it is hard to be an expert in every culture or period and her brief treatment of Classical history makes me wonder how much depth of attention she was able to pay to periods outside the early modern and modern. It is interesting (if not surprising) that Athenians had a democracy but that it did not extend to slaves and women. The same was true of the US and French revolutions. However I think a comparison with Sparta - a mere 100 miles away and flourishing at the same time - would have been really valuable, since despite the fact they were a monarchy, they treated marriage completely differently and the status of women was far better. For example, women were not secluded, they were not veiled, they could own property and keep it after divorce, they sometimes practiced polyandry. Athens is certainly the more representative culture from that period in history but not every ancient culture oppressed and restricted its women in that way. You could write a book of this length just about marriage in the Classical period (see Debra Hamel's excellent 'Trying Neaira' for one example of how family life worked in Classical Athens).
So I feel the 'pick and mix' approach, while fascinating to someone with no background in the sociology or history of marriage, gives the book a lack of coherence. This is a real shame, as there is so much research in here, the references are a treasure trove and it's a very readable book.