Love & War: Twenty Years, Three Presidents, Two Daughters and One Louisiana Home
James Carville and Mary Matalin
337 pages (hardcover)
Politically, Bryan and I see eye-to-eye on every issue imaginable. We lean far to one side of the political spectrum, and there are many issues about which we feel very strongly. Although I would not describe us as particularly political, our politics color everything from what non-profits we support financially to how we decorate our house (hanging in one of our hallways is a grouping of politically-themed art and documents, including the invitations to a presidential inauguration and inaugural ball that Bryan’s grandparents attended decades ago). I can’t imagine being from a household where my vote would be canceled out by my husband’s.
If you follow politics on television at all, then you know who James Carville (the Rajin’ Cajun) and Mary Matalin are. They are the poster children for the cancel-each-other’s-vote relationship. Despite having diametrically opposed views on nearly everything, they got married in 1993 (after he worked on Clinton’s presidential campaign and she worked on Bush’s).
Naturally, people assumed the marriage was a sham—a clear political stunt and career move, aimed at furthering their celebrity status in the political realm. And they’ve certainly used their relationship to great success. They often appear together on political talk shows, as mouthpieces for opposite sides of the aisle:
But twenty years have passed, and they’re still going strong. So, either their marriage is a really long, really successful stunt, or it’s not a sham after all.
Their new, jointly-authored book, Love & War: Twenty Years, Three Presidents, Two Daughters, and One Louisiana Home, begins with a list of FAQs that they assure the reader will be answered “in vivid and occasionally lurid detail in the pages to follow.” They include:
- “Is your marriage a sham?”
- “Is your marriage a political stunt?”
- “Is your wife as big a bitch as she seems to be on TV?”
- “Is your husband weird like that at home?”
- “What do you fight about the most?”
Yes, the tenor of the book is a little gossipy and trite. This is clearly not a book about politics. But I knew what I was getting into. I first read about the book in Vogue, which published this exclusive excerpt with photos of them in their New Orleans home. The excerpt is a solid representation of the book.
The book is divided into chapters, which serve as broad subject headers. Each chapter then bounces back and forth between Mary’s point of view and James’s.
James is succinct, to-the-point, no bullshit. Mary is a little more flowery and feely. He likes crisp bedding, LSU football, and is fastidiously clean. She loves animals (furry, feathered, scaled), likes to figure things out quickly, and has a horrible sense of direction. Their personalities come out in their differing descriptions of the same event. He has a tendency to be less emotionally involved. He describes his personal experience but attempts to relate it to a greater arena. He seems to watch his tongue a bit. She speaks in long swathes of feelings and personal reactions. She isn’t afraid to give herself a big ol’ pat on the back or give James the occasional tongue lashing (pen lashing? key lashing?).
And their political views definitely rear their heads (James: “There’s a great tendency to overestimate conspiracies and underestimate stupidity. Iraq is a perfect case study for that.” And Mary: “It’s kind of irksome that conservative media keep trying to be fair and balanced. Do you ever see even a scintilla of fair and balanced reporting on MSNBC (with the possible exception of Joe Scarborough on some topics)?”). Their little quips and jibes are amusing.
Readers will definitely relate to and identify with one more than the other. But not because of their politics. Carville and Matalin are not just political opposites; they view the world differently, they process information differently, they react to everyday life differently. That is what this book is about. It makes you wonder how they’ve managed to make their marriage last for twenty years, stunt or not.
Rating: 2.5/5 🏡
The longest chapter (“The Dark Ages,” about 9/11, the Iraq War, Mary’s harried schedule working in the White House, and their marital problems) was my least favorite. There were pages and pages by Mary that were punctuated by short paragraphs by James. She had more first-hand knowledge of the events (working as a counselor to Cheney and assistant to Bush), but the chapter comes off as more one-sided than the rest of the book. In addition, (as the subject matter necessitates) this chapter is grim, which doesn’t fit with the overall tone of the book. It feels too long, too drawn out, and too self-congratulatory.
In contrast, I loved all the Louisiana stuff. The chapter on Katrina resonated with me the most (I moved away from Baton Rouge in June 2005; Katrina hit in August of that year). I could relate to the feeling of helplessness watching from afar and worrying about loved ones. I also appreciated the perspectives (both James’s and Mary’s) on New Orleans post-Katrina as a thriving, growing, uniquely wonderful city. They both love New Orleans, and it shows. And, having lived in both D.C. and Louisiana, I loved the comparisons of the two. For example, here is James on restaurants:
They’re generally way quieter in Washington. People eat gently. They talk in hushed tones. They dress well. I remember going out to eat in New Orleans the first few times after we moved back and thinking, This is the way people are supposed to sound. There’s not much of a social penalty here for laughing a little too loudly or talking a little too loudly or cursing a little too much. If somebody slips up and says the wrong thing, people don’t hold it up as some sort of faux pas. They tend to shrug it off and say, “Oh, he was just drunk. What the hell?”
The book is exactly what you think it will be. It doesn’t delve too deeply into any issues, but it does give an interesting insider’s look into some major events (from 9/11 to Katrina). If you’re looking for opposing views on important political issues, this is not the book for you. This is a fluffy memoir about a couple’s marriage and their move to New Orleans.
Who should read it: people who love Louisiana generally and New Orleans specifically (after reading the excerpt, this is the main reason I was drawn to the book); people who love watching Carville and Matalin duke it out on political talk shows.
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt (named one of the best books of 2012 by The Wall Street Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist; winner of YALSA’s Alex Award; one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Month for June 2012)
- Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Month for April 2013; winner of the Costa Novel Award and shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction).