Rarely has a newlywed delivered a more withering assessment of marriage than Charlotte Brontë. “It is a solemn and strange and perilous thing for a woman to become a wife,” she wrote to a friend — fresh off her honeymoon, no less.
A number of recent books have taken up her argument, looking anew at marriage and how it benefits women (or mostly doesn’t), as well as how our ideas about courtship and intimacy have evolved: “All the Single Ladies” by Rebecca Traister, “Labor of Love” by Moira Weigel, “Spinster” by Kate Bolick and “Future Sex” by Emily Witt, to name just a few. They’ve taken a skeptical and lively interest in the public pressures shaping our private bonds. In many cases, they puzzle over one question: Why is this institution, long regarded as desirable, even compulsory, falling out of favor around the world?
Inspired by a similar curiosity, two new books — “Leftover in China” and “The Heart Is a Shifting Sea” — look to China and India, respectively, to assess how marriage withstands breakneck economic growth, social change and the increasing financial independence of women. (Spoiler: badly.)
The books take opposite approaches. “Leftover in China,” the flimsier of the two, examines the phenomenon of sheng nu, or “leftover women” — highly educated, ambitious women who cannot find partners, or so the story goes. The author, Roseann Lake, a correspondent for The Economist, describes the dizzying rise of recent generations of Chinese women with a dizzying tempo of her own.
Lake zips through history. In 1949, 75 percent of Chinese women were illiterate. Today, China has one of the lowest rates of female illiteracy in the world — as well as the highest…