A tip of the hat once more to my friend Katie, who pointed me toward Meg Wolitzer (Katie was, at the time, reading The Ten-Year Nap, and that’s on my list now, too!). The Wife is about a very unfunny subject —the unravelling of a marriage — but in Ms. Wolitzer’s capable hands, Joan (the wife in question) tells her story in darkly comic fashion.
Joan’s husband is the much-awarded novelist Joe Castleman, and when the novel opens, she’s made up her mind to leave him as they fly to Helsinki, where he’s to receive his latest accolade. From there, Joan takes the narrative back to Smith College in the 1950s, and we learn how the pair met, and just how it all went wrong.
As a narrator, Joan is simultaneously unreliable and honest, and always a keen observer, not only of her own marriage, but also of the changing world around her. Though The Wife was published ten years ago, Joan’s observations about the role of wives echo loudly, especially with the recent debates about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article on work-life balance in last summer’s Atlantic. Here’s Joan near the end of the novel:
Everyone knows how women soldier on, how women dream of 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 husband and children will ride serenely through life. (183)
Apparently, I’m not the first reader to love this passage; the page was dog-eared when I picked up the book.