(Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 400 pp., $26.95)
In an author’s note at the end of Above All Things, Tanis Rideout admits to falling in love with George Mallory, one of the first explorers of Mount Everest. It is impossible not to admire Mr. Mallory, who climbed with serpentine grace. In 1921, he searched Everest for months, looking for a path to the summit. In 1924, he died there.
Above All Things is an elegant and well-researched novel about George Mallory and his wife, Ruth, during the months leading up to Mr. Mallory’s last adventure. Ruth and George fell in love on a trip to Italy, and Ms. Rideout describes a marriage full of desire and intimacy, although she also drops hints about George’s youthful infatuation with Lytton Strachey’s brother, James. George Mallory’s life on Everest is the strongest part of the book. Here we meet Andrew “Sandy” Irvine, the youngest member of the climbing team and a mechanical genius, who accompanies Mr. Mallory on June 8, 1924, on the final, doomed push from Camp 6 to the summit.
Ms. Rideout does a brilliant job with the last hours of the climb. Noel Odell, the expedition’s geologist, was below the men and found a fossil, looked up and famously sighted two black dots, Mallory and Irvine, moving up higher on the mountain. Odell always believed they were ascending the Second Step. Ms. Rideout makes the wise decision to accept Odell’s statement, and she imagines the rest. Mallory’s body was discovered in 1999.
His death is revealed back home in tragic details, such as his 3-year-old son’s limp, and the flare of anger Ruth feels when she has to the tell the children. Many readers will feel compelled to head to YouTube to watch Conrad Anker’s team discover and bury Mr. Mallory’s body, rope around his waist, and one distinctive hob-nailed boot still dug into the scree. —Rebecca Kurson
(Knopf, 395 pp., $30)
Over the past century, Americans have gone to the movies to experience adventure, mystery, romance—to escape. It’s no wonder, film historian Jeanine Basinger argues, that studio executives and their marketing teams generally avoided ever directly mentioning that hallmark of American life: marriage. The marriage film, she writes, is “the genre that dare not speak its name,” typically disguised as something else. Her 10th book, I Do and I Don’t, is a wry, entertaining romp through its history and conventions.
By the end of the silent era, Ms. Basinger writes, the marriage film typically “sold a series of lies,” sending its starring couples on exotic trips or through various trials only to return them to their newly fulfilling daily existences. The studio era brought a new series of problems; seven, to be exact: money, infidelity, in-laws and children, incompatibility, class, addiction (“an addicted partner must reform, or die”) and murder.
The marriage film began declining in the 1960s, along with the institution itself, but television became a home for (family-centered) marriage stories. Still, Hollywood had a few tricks up its sleeve, focusing more on divorce and feminism, and even showing what a (somewhat) happy lesbian marriage could look like, in The Kids Are Alright (2010). The films also “went nuclear,” in the 1980s, Ms. Basinger writes, as action and marriage films bled into one another. She cites Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005), in which Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie play married assassins hired to kill each other. It was really about an age-old problem, she says: “They didn’t really know each other when they wed.” —Andrew Russeth