Literary Wives: The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress, by Ariel Lawhon

literarywives2If you missed the Literary Wives introductory post, here’s the summary:  I’ll be joining bloggers Ariel, Audra, Emily, Cecilia, Kay, and Lynn, as we post every other month about a different book with the word “wife” in the title. This month, we’re writing about Ariel Lawhon’s novel The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress, which will be published in early 2014.

Full disclosure: I, like the other Literary Wives bloggers, received an ARC of The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review and a link to Ms. Lawhon’s site, http://www.ariellawhon.com/.

Ms. Lawhon kindly answered our questions about the novel and her writing process; you can read the full interview, hosted on Audra’s blog, here: http://unabridged-expression.blogspot.com/2013/12/literary-wives-interview-with-ariel.html

Readers take note: Although I usually refrain from spoilers, what follows is a consideration of one aspect of the novel, and so I shall be spoiling away. Beware!

Here’s the Goodreads summary:

A tantalizing reimagining of a scandalous mystery that rocked the nation in 1930-Justice Joseph Crater’s infamous disappearance-as seen through the eyes of the three women who knew him best.

They say behind every great man, there’s a woman. In this case, there are three. Stella Crater, the judge’s wife, is the picture of propriety draped in long pearls and the latest Chanel. Ritzi, a leggy showgirl with Broadway aspirations, thinks moonlighting in the judge’s bed is the quickest way off the chorus line. Maria Simon, the dutiful maid, has the judge to thank for her husband’s recent promotion to detective in the NYPD. Meanwhile, Crater is equally indebted to Tammany Hall leaders and the city’s most notorious gangster, Owney “The Killer” Madden.

On a sultry summer night, as rumors circulate about the judge’s involvement in wide-scale political corruption, the Honorable Joseph Crater steps into a cab and disappears without a trace. Or does he?

After 39 years of necessary duplicity, Stella Crater is finally ready to reveal what she knows. Sliding into a plush leather banquette at Club Abbey, the site of many absinthe-soaked affairs and the judge’s favorite watering hole back in the day, Stella orders two whiskeys on the rocks-one for her and one in honor of her missing husband. Stirring the ice cubes in the lowball glass, Stella begins to tell a tale-of greed, lust, and deceit. As the novel unfolds and the women slyly break out of their prescribed roles, it becomes clear that each knows more than she has initially let on.

LawhonI didn’t care for this book; the pacing is off and the author relies too much on the reader’s ability to remember very specific dates when cutting back and forth in the narrative. Others have described the novel as funny, but I didn’t find it amusing at all. On the other hand, I think it’s an interesting foray into the Jazz Age that doesn’t sugarcoat just how difficult and desperate some women’s circumstances were.

And now, my responses to the Literary Wives questions:

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

In short: being a wife is the worst.

Stella’s husband, the judge, is a philandering cad with some serious honesty issues, who makes zero attempt to hide his affair(s) from his wife and who demands that she become the 1930s equivalent of Jackie Kennedy.

Ritzi (her nickname makes me gag), it turns out, is a wife too. She was so bored with her midwest farmer husband that she ran off to become a showgirl. Clearly, this did not work out well for her, what with the murder of the judge and the attempted forced abortion. In the end, however, her husband reveals himself to be the forgiving and stand-up type. We don’t get enough backstory to learn if Ritzi’s departure was motivated by any bad behavior on his part.

Maria’s husband is a pleasant-enough guy, when he’s not hiding his work troubles from her or breaking her treasured rosary.  She loves her husband, but keeps important information from him, some of which isn’t revealed until the very end of the novel. Of all the characters, she’s the most sympathetic, the most moral actor in an ethically grey landscape. Naturally, she’s diagnosed with cancer and dies a year after the events in the book.

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

I’m going to stick with Stella here, since she’s the “wife” in the title. At first, I liked Stella. She slams her husband’s hand in his car door when she finds evidence of his nonchalant cheating; she seems like the kind of person who stands up for herself. As the novel goes along, we learn that this is a recent development. After her husband decides to go into politics, some years before the main events of the novel, Stella acquiesces to his demands that she be seen and not heard, that she frequent the “right” stores, that she turn a blind eye to his bribery and illegal dealings. We enter her life at the point when she is utterly fed up with the ordeal of appearing as The Good and Dutiful Wife. The final straw is her husband’s attempt to take her personal property as part of the exchange for his judgeship. Stella gets it back. Joe gets dead.

Oddly, Stella’s yearly ritual of the drink and the toast to her husband seems to signal a devotion to Joe’s memory, the kind of devotion that she doesn’t display in life. Perhaps it’s their early affection that she remembers fondly; perhaps she only wishes to be at the center of things again. Either way, Stella never escapes being Joe’s wife.

Please visit the other Literary Wives bloggers to get their takes on the book! 

Emily at The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Audra at Unabridged Chick

Ariel at One Little Library

Cecilia at Only You

Kay at WhatMeRead

Lynn at Smoke and Mirrors

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