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5 Novels that explore how marriage really works

Two wedding rings on book page close up

John Touhey | Aleteia

Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 02/01/24

How do successful couples manage to make their marriages last and thrive? These five novels open a window into the mystery that is marriage.

If the family is the building block of society, then marriage is the glue that holds each building block together:

The intimate community of life and love which constitutes the married state has been established by the Creator and endowed by him with its own proper laws… God himself is the author of marriage. The well-being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life.

But as much as we know marriage is incredibly important, it remains something of a mystery. How can two very different people, each of whom is changing a little every day, stick together for their entire lives? What does this process of choosing each other every day—even when we don’t feel like it—look like in practice? And how do successful couples manage to make their marriages last and thrive?

These five novels open a window into the mystery that is marriage. Each one unearths and pulls into the light something important about how marriage works, and just as importantly, what can make a marriage go wrong. 

Each of these novels about marriage would be a great pick to discuss with your spouse or with your couples’ book club. What books would you add to this list?

Anna Karenina

This iconic book might be the best work of literature ever written about the inner workings of marriages:

The book is about the relationship of men and women, and the vast number of variations this relationship. Better than almost anyone else I can think of, Tolstoy in this novel shows where the stress lines in the man-woman relationship lie and what it takes to heal them.

Agatha Christie novel "Absent in the Spring" over map of Iraq

Absent in the Spring

I’ve written before about how penetrating and absorbing this literary gem is. It reveals so much about marriage and about relationships and friendships in general. 

Agatha Christie considered it her own best work, and described it in this way:

…the picture of a woman with a complete image of herself, of what she was, but about which she was completely mistaken. Through her actions, her feelings and thoughts this would be revealed to the reader. She would be, as it were, continually meeting herself, not recognising herself, but becoming increasingly uneasy. What brought about this revelation would be the fact that for the first time in her life she was alone—completely alone—for four or five days. 

Aleteia's big winter reads 2024 - Kristin Lavransdatter

Kristin Lavransdatter

When it comes to the complex psychology of relationships between men and women, has any writer captured this interplay better than Nobel Prize-winning author Sigrid Undset? Kristin Lavransdatter is her masterpiece, a vast and sweeping epic saga with the most realistic characters I’ve ever read… even though it takes place in medieval Norway.

You can’t come away from this book without being changed by the experience. The main character, Kristin, struggles and tries to make peace in her relationship with God and her husband over the course of the trilogy. Marriage is worth it, she comes to see; faith is worth it; but both are hard-fought for her, and it’s in the challenges that she learns and grows—and we along with her.

Kristin Lavransdatter also happens to be one of our Big Winter Books for 2024.


Middlemarch has a scope and sweep far beyond that of most English-language novels, putting it on a level with Russian novels like War and Peace, but with a more cheerful and even humorous tone. Marriage is a major theme, as the plot interweaves the consequences—disastrous or felicitous—of the various characters’ spousal choices. 

This book reveals how the choice of who to marry can make or break not just a person’s happiness but their career, accomplishments, and moral character. No pressure!

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry book on beach.

Hannah Coulter

Oh, this book is so beautiful. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t love it after reading it (which is why I recommend it so much). Recently at my book club, all the members went around sharing their favorite books, and I think about half said Hannah Coulter

The story of a rural wife and war widow, Hannah Coulter is a profound and honest look at the dissolution of farms and families after the vast societal changes of the 20th century. Few things endure, but one that does is Hannah’s marriage. How and why it stays strong in a changing world is something beautiful, something inspiring, with something to learn for anyone who’s ever loved somebody else.

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