Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge (Counterpoint, $15 and $16) by Evan S. Connell. In these two novels, Connell writes in bright, sharp, gorgeously clear short chapters about the lives of bourgeois Midwesterners. The plots are minimal; the books' strengths are the depth of characterization and the ache that is so visible in the restrained language and the main characters' profound though often unexpressed love. Of the two, Mrs. Bridge is the masterwork, but together these books are so affecting that I still think of them almost daily, years after I read them.
Middlemarch by George Eliot (Bantam, $7). I'd argue that Middlemarch is the single greatest English-language book about marriage (a silly thing to argue, I know, as I haven't read every book in the English language). Eliot needs no introduction from me, but in Middlemarch's Dorothea Brooke we have a beautiful vision of the way a young person comes into a marriage with starry-eyed idealism, and then grows and is changed and returned to herself by the institution.
Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat (Europa, $17 and $16) by Jane Gardam. I don't know why Gardam isn't universally celebrated and beloved. Her prose is dazzling, and she writes with a kind of subdued but wicked humor that takes a moment to clamp down on you. Old Filth, the first book in a trilogy, concerns an aged barrister whose nickname is short for Failed in London Try Hong Kong. He is a beautiful, admirable old man who has just lost the love of his life, his wife, Betty. In The Man in the Wooden Hat, the story pivots to Betty's perspective. It's just as beautifully written as the first.
I Want to Show You More by Jamie Quatro (Grove, $15). Now for a newer voice in fiction. Quatro's prose is musical and her spirit is passionate. In these gorgeous short stories, she wrestles mightily with sex and God and the South and desire and hunger and, yes, marriage. I'd recommend this collection to absolutely anyone, whether or not they believe that they like short stories.