“The moment I decided to leave him, the moment I thought, enough, we were thirty-five thousand feet above the ocean, hurtling forward but giving the illusion of stillness and tranquility. Just like our marriage.” So opens Meg Wolitzer’s compelling and provocative novel The Wife, as Joan Castleman sits beside her husband on their flight to Helsinki. Joan’s husband, Joseph Castleman, is “one of those men who own the world…who has no idea how to take care of himself or anyone else, and who derives much of his style from the Dylan Thomas Handbook of Personal Hygiene and Etiquette.” He is also one of America’s preeminent novelists, about to receive a prestigious international award to honor his accomplishments, and Joan, who has spent forty years subjugating her own literary talents to fan the flames of his career, has finally decided to stop.
From this gripping opening, Wolitzer flashes back fifty years to 1950s Smith College and Greenwich Village — the beginning of the Castleman relationship — and follows the course of the famous marriage that has brought them to this breaking point, culminating in a shocking ending that outs a carefully kept secret.
Wolitzer’s most important and ambitious book to date, The Wife is a wise, sharp-eyed, compulsively readable story about a woman forced to confront the sacrifices she’s made in order to achieve the life she thought she wanted. But it’s also an unusually candid look at the choices all men and women make for themselves, in marriage, work, and life. With her skillful storytelling and pitch-perfect observations, Wolitzer invites intriguing questions about the nature of partnership and the precarious position of an ambitious woman in a man’s world.” ~ Goodreads
Stupefied. That’s how I feel when reading books by Meg Wolitzer. She has permanently taken a spot on the “one of my favorite authors” shelf. The was she describes everyday scenes, occurrences and the interactions between people makes me all jittery like I drank too much caffeine. The words buzz in my ears. I read something once that writers notice the little things and pay attention to everything around them and then blow it up with language. I would say Wolitzer does this in a profound way. With a snarky edge and I love her for that.
Although Joan Castleman became a wife in the 1950’s, I could still empathize with her struggle to have a voice while married to ‘a man who owned the world’. Sixty years later, there are still similar women who resign to being the lamb while their husband commands the wolf role. (I know quite a few).
“For women in 1956 were always confronting boundaries, negotiations: where they could walk at night, how far they could let a man go when the two of them were alone. Men hardly seemed troubled by these things; they walked everywhere in cold, dark cities and pin-drop empty streets, and they let their hands go walking too…”
But women have a choice now, right? They also did in the 1950’s to some extent. But what resonated (and maybe for many women) was the fact that this story spoke about a woman who decided to put herself on the back burner for everyone else. And guess what? It happens to many of us when we choose to be a wife and mother. Not complaining about it, but being taken for granted catches up and when the children are grown or semi-grown, you look around the empty house and say to yourself, “now what?”
“Everyone knows how women soldier on, how women dream up blueprints, recipes, ideas for a better world, and then sometimes lose them on the way to the crib in the middle of the night, on the way to the Stop & Shop, or the bath. They lose them on the way to greasing the path on which their husbands and children will ride serenely through life.”
Sound familiar? And then I thought this next quote was genius. I’ve been saying for years how I totally get those polygamist families. Not that I would ever want that kind of relationship, but I understand how women need each other:
“Everyone needs a wife; even wives need wives. Wives tend, they hover. Their ears are twin sensitive instruments, satellites picking up the slightest scrape of dissatisfaction. Wives bring broth, we bring paper clips, we bring ourselves and our pliant, warm bodies. We know just what to say to the men who for some reason have a great deal of trouble taking constant care of themselves or anyone else.
“Listen,” we say. “Everything will be okay.”
And then, as if our lives depend on it, we make sure it is.”
I liked The Ten-Year Nap. Hype for The Interestings was lived up to in my opinion. But reading The Wife took on a different animal for me. I can’t say that I was surprised by the ending because a story about an egocentric man and his wife who resigned to be just a wife was edgy from the first page. Something was brewing. Something was going to happen or be revealed. I didn’t predict it. But at the end I had a feeling. Without giving anything away, Joan Castleman was one hell of a female lead character. Loved it!
To learn more about the brilliant Meg Wolitzer, visit her site here.
The Wife was published in 2004 by Scribner and is 224 pages.