Literary Wives: Wife 22, by Melanie Gideon

literarywives2If you’re new to Literary Wives, here’s the summary: we’re an online bookclub of five to six book bloggers, and we post every other month about a different book with the word “wife” in the title. When we read these books, we have two questions in mind:

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

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

This month, we’re talking about Melanie Gideon’s 2012 novel, Wife 22.  We invite you to join the discussion by commenting on our blogs (links below) or posting your own review on our shiny new Facebook page.

We also hope you’ll join us next time, on Monday, December 1, when we’ll be discussing Adriana Trigiani’s The Shoemaker’s Wife.


Here’s the jacket copy/summary from the publisher:

Maybe it was those extra five pounds I’d gained. Maybe it was because I was about to turn the same age my mother was when I lost her. Maybe it was because after almost twenty years of marriage my husband and I seemed to be running out of things to say to each other.

But when the anonymous online study called “Marriage in the 21st Century” showed up in my inbox, I had no idea how profoundly it would change my life. It wasn’t long before I was assigned both a pseudonym (Wife 22) and a caseworker (Researcher 101).

And, just like that, I found myself answering questions.

7. Sometimes I tell him he’s snoring when he’s not snoring so he’ll sleep in the guest room and I can have the bed all to myself.
61. Chet Baker on the tape player. He was cutting peppers for the salad. I looked at those hands and thought, I am going to have this man’s children.
67. To not want what you don’t have. What you can’t have. What you shouldn’t have.
32. That if we weren’t careful, it was possible to forget one another.

Before the study, my life was an endless blur of school lunches and doctor’s appointments, family dinners, budgets, and trying to discern the fastest-moving line at the grocery store. I was Alice Buckle: spouse of William and mother to Zoe and Peter, drama teacher and Facebook chatter, downloader of memories and Googler of solutions.

But these days, I’m also Wife 22. And somehow, my anonymous correspondence with Researcher 101 has taken an unexpectedly personal turn. Soon, I’ll have to make a decision—one that will affect my family, my marriage, my whole life. But at the moment, I’m too busy answering questions.

As it turns out, confession can be a very powerful aphrodisiac.

photo (128)Meet Alice Buckle. She’s a former playwright, current children’s drama teacher, and her marriage to William, an ad executive, is not failing, exactly, but it’s not going exactly well, either. Both love their children; she loves their dog. They live in the Bay Area in a nice house, and have suitably cool friends. [Memo to novelists and screenwriters: enough with the token the San Francisco non-white lesbian friend, ok? Maybe try a non-white San Francisco lesbian as a main character? Sheesh.]

And of course she’s in the middle of a mid-life crisis, because “having a secret is the most powerful aphrodisiac in the world and, by necessity, exactly what’s missing in a marriage” (88).

In Wife 22, being a wife is difficult because it involves boredom and stagnation, and because the wife in question has difficulty communicating directly with her spouse. Motherhood seems equally difficult (for different reasons) but more rewarding. 

The novel’s plot is predictable, the characters mostly so, and the commentary bland, but the dialogue is lively and the format keeps things moving. If Alice narrated the whole thing, I don’t think I would have enjoyed the novel, but Ms. Gideon uses e-mails, Google searches, Facebook messages, and discussion board postings (that made me fear PTA parents) to break up the text. I did think that providing Alice’s answers to the survey questions without providing the questions themselves until the end of the book was pretty gimmicky. 

Wife 22 is about a very specific type of marriage: white, affluent, heterosexual, urban; Alice and William’s struggles feel frivolous and self-indulgent given the experiences of the great majority of couples in the United States and, indeed, the world.

But perhaps that’s not a fair assessment, since Wife 22 is really light reading. It has its moments of perceptiveness, of course, like this one, when Alice meets with her support group composed of women who, like her, have lost their mothers:

[. . .] we offered shoulders to lean on, hands to hold, and ears to bend. And when we failed at that, there was lumpia and waterproof mascara samples, links to articles, and yes, vodka-laced tomato juice.

But mostly there was the ease that came from not having to pretend you had ever recovered. The world wanted you to go on. The world needed you to go on. But the Mumble Bumbles understood that the loss soundtrack was always playing in the background. Sometimes it was on mute, and sometimes it was blasting away on ten, making you deaf. (106)

And it can be quite funny, especially when the novel focuses on the couple’s two kids, or when Alice makes an unexpected comparison.

I want to have a conversation with my husband that goes deeper than insurance policies and taxes and what time will you be home and did you call the guy about the gutters, but we seem to be stuck here floating around on the surface of our lives like kids in the pool propped up on those Styrofoam noodles. (33)

Wife 22 is like,  I think, a slightly more serious version of a post-2000 Nancy Meyers movie, only without the divorce. It’s good-natured, well-intentioned entertainment about a subset of Americans who get more than their fair share of screen (and page) time.


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

Emily at The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Ariel at One Little Library

Cecilia at Only You

Kay at WhatMeRead

Lynn at Smoke and Mirrors

(Audra at Unabridged Chick is on hiatus)

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Literary Wives: The World’s Wife, by Carol Ann Duffy

literarywives2If you’re new to Literary Wives, here’s the summary: we’re an online bookclub of five to six book bloggers, and we post every other month about a different book with the word “wife” in the title. When we read these books, we have two questions in mind:

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

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

This month, we’re talking about Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, a 1999 collection of poetry.  We invite you to join the discussion by commenting on our blogs (links below) or posting your own review on our Facebook page.

We also hope you’ll join us next time, on Monday, October 6, when we’ll be discussing Melanie Gideon’s Wife 22.


photo (112)Dear Readers, it will come as no surprise to you that I love Carol Ann Duffy. I’ve talked about her poetry in a couple of different contexts (here and here), and she’s one of the few writers whose work I’ll buy without reading reviews or flipping through pages. Several of the poems in The World’s Wife are included in Ms. Duffy’s Selected Poems, which is how I first learned of the book.

In The World’s Wife, Ms. Duffy imagines the voices of the women close to famous historical or cultural male figures (“Mrs. Lazarus”, “Frau Freud”) or the voices of the people those male figures might have been had they been female (so, “The Kray Sisters” instead of the Kray Brothers, “Queen Kong” instead of King Kong), or the voices of women whose stories have been rendered in men’s voices (“Delilah,” “Little Red Cap”).

The poems range from a few lines to a few pages long, but all of them feature Ms. Duffy’s trademark sharp wit, incisive language, and zinging, unexpected rhymes. These poems are often funny and always thought provoking, a glorious medley of feminist social commentary in an entertaining package.

Usually, this is the part of the post in which I’d address our Literary Wives questions, but since this book presents so many women, it would be folly to write about them all. In general, though, Ms. Duffy presents a picture of wifehood that is at once one of frustration and one of power; the invisible wives of history are, in The World’s Wife, fully imbued with agency, requiring our attention. Ms. Duffy asks us to consider what it would be like to mourn and grieve for a dead partner, only to have him reappear (“Mrs. Lazarus”) or what it would be like to be terrified that your husband might accidentally turn you into gold (“Mrs. Midas”).

Sometimes Ms. Duffy’s characters supply an answer to a vexing historical quandary. In “Anne Hathaway,” Shakespeare’s wife tells us exactly why her husband in his will left her “my second best bed.” Sometimes her speakers are drawn forward into the modern era. We see wily “Mrs. Faust” making use of her husband’s bargain, and witness “Mrs. Tiresias”‘s  exasperation when her gender-changing husband experiences menstruation for the first time (hint: a strongly-worded letter to “the powers that be” demanding paid menstrual leave ensues”).  These are “Bad girls. Serious women.” They’re not always women you’d like to meet, but they’re fascinating creations.

Feminine GospelsIf you loved The World’s Wife and are wondering which book to read next, I’m happy to recommend Ms. Duffy’s collection Feminine Gospels (2002), which you might consider a kind of follow-up to The World’s Wife. I read it recently and it was fantastic. Like The World’s Wife, the characters in the poems allow us entry into the world from a female perspective, though one much more everyday, not necessarily associated with names everyone knows. Feminine Gospels includes a long poem, “The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High” which sparkles with wit and depth and character; I don’t usually go in for non-epic long poems, but this one is just fabulous.


 

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

Emily at The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Cecilia at Only You

Kay at WhatMeRead

Lynn at Smoke and Mirrors

(Ariel at One Little Library will be posting sometime in the next couple weeks)

(Audra at Unabridged Chick is on hiatus)

Literary Wives: The Crane Wife, by Patrick Ness

literarywives2If you’re new to Literary Wives, here’s the summary: we’re an online bookclub of five to six book bloggers, and we post every other month about a different book with the word “wife” in the title. When we read these books, we have two questions in mind:

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

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

This month, we’re talking about Patrick Ness’s latest novel, The Crane Wife*.  We invite you to join the discussion by commenting on our blogs (links below) or posting your own review on our shiny new Facebook page.

We also hope you’ll join us next time, on Monday, August 4, when we’ll be discussing Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife (poetry! hooray!).


photo (83)I’ve had my eye on The Crane Wife for a few months. I like novels that bend myths and folklore in new ways, and Patrick Ness has been the recipient of all kinds of praise. And isn’t the cover just gorgeous?

Here’s the summary from the publisher:

George Duncan is an American living and working in London. At forty-eight, he owns a small print shop, is divorced, and is lonelier than he realizes. All of the women with whom he has relationships eventually leave him for being too nice. But one night he is waked by an astonishing sound—a terrific keening, which is coming from somewhere in his garden. When he investigates he finds a great white crane, a bird taller than himself. It has been shot through the wing with an arrow. Moved more than he can say, George struggles to take out the arrow from the bird’s wing, saving its life before it flies away into the night sky.

The next morning, a shaken George tries to go about his daily life, retreating to the back of his store and making cuttings from discarded books—a harmless personal hobby—when a woman walks through the front door of the shop. Her name is Kumiko, and she asks George to help her with her own artwork. George is dumbstruck by her beauty and her enigmatic nature and begins to fall desperately in love with her. She seems to hold the potential to change his entire life, if he could only get her to reveal the secret of who she is and why she has brought her artwork to him.

You see where that’s going, right? I think we’re meant to; as we (the readers) read to understand how and why Kumiko and the crane are connected, George busies himself just trying to learn who Kumiko is — she’s evasive, to say the least; the most personal information she’ll share is a mythic story about a crane and a volcano that she’s depicting in a private series of works.

The novel is at its best when it focuses on the everyday lives of its characters. George is a thoughtful, kind man (a real treat to read about, in this day and age), and his daughter, Amanda, was my favorite character. Angry and overworked on both the professional and the domestic fronts, Amanda has trouble fitting in with other women at work, who discount her passionate opinions and remain oblivious to her particular brand of humor. She’s still in love with her ex-husband and delights in their rambunctious son. Like George, like everyone, she’s entranced by Kumiko. I was entranced by Amanda, by her intensity and her awareness and by how much she cares for her family. Throughout the novel, I preferred realism to the hazy sort of philosophy that Kumiko seems to represent.

I have three quibbles with the novel’s style. First, Mr. Ness italicizes words for emphasis, which drove me crazy. (See?) Once I could overlook, but it happens repeatedly. Second, the tone occasionally veers into the maudlin and sentimental, which was distracting. Third, several long sections consist entirely of dialogue (which is fine), with pauses indicated by ellipses in quotation marks. Would it have been so difficult to write, “He paused.”? And how is an ellipsis spoken?

The Crane Wife is a gentle, sometimes sentimental novel with memorable characters. If that’s your kind of book, I think you’ll like it.


And now, on to the Literary Wives questions:

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

Despite the title, neither of the main female characters — Kumiko and Amanda — are properly wives. George’s ex-wife is refreshingly non-harpy-like, and happily remarried. Amanda’s experience of marriage — what little we see of it — was difficult because of the two personalities involved. There’s no cohesive picture of what it means to be a wife, and that’s just fine.

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

Again, a difficult question to answer, since, properly, the Crane Wife is a folktale/mythological/fairytale figure, and in this instance she seems to be the crane in Kumiko’s story, who must see the world for what it is, be willing to suffer for love, and ultimately forgive those who hurt her (this is all a bit fuzzy, to tell the truth). I don’t think I like this vision of what it means to be a wife — see feminist credentials, mine — but this is all wrapped up in the “hazy philosophy” I mentioned above, so I will forgo the rant for now.

*I, along with the other Literary Wives bloggers, received a review copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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

Emily at The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Ariel at One Little Library

Cecilia at Only You

Kay at WhatMeRead

Lynn at Smoke and Mirrors

(Audra at Unabridged Chick is on hiatus)

Literary Wives: The Zookeeper’s Wife

literarywives2If you’re new to Literary Wives, 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. When we read these books, we have two questions in mind:

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

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

This month, we’re talking about Diane Ackerman’s 2007 book The Zookeeper’s Wife. We invite you to join the discussion by commenting on our blogs (links below) or posting your own review on our shiny new Facebook page.


photo (66)The Zookeeper’s Wife is the first nonfiction book we’ve read together as a group.  I looked forward to reading the book for many reasons. My grandfather is a World War II veteran (Eighth Air Force), and close family friends, husband and wife, flew in the RAF and fought in the Dutch Resistance, respectively. I’ve also had the honor of meeting Holocaust survivors, thanks to the Maltz Museum of Jewish History, which is located near my hometown. Several of my high school friends’ grandparents were Holocaust survivors, too. All of which is to say that World War II feels more immediate to me than wars that, chronologically, are much closer to my own lifetime (Korea, Vietnam, even the Gulf War, which I remember seeing reports about on TV). I’m always interested to read another account of people who experienced the war.

Diane Ackerman traces the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski (the eponymous zookeeper and his wife), who ran the Warsaw Zoo before the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. Like many other non-Jewish Poles, the Zabinskis risked their lives to save Jews and others hunted by the Nazis during the war; more than three hundred people passed through the zoo on their way to safety. Of all the countries affected by the Holocaust, Poland is the country with the most citizens deemed Righteous Among the Nations (non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews) by Yad Vashem. The Zabinskis were two of those citizens.

Their story deserves to be told. The pair went to great lengths to help others at the risk of not only their own lives, but the life of their young son. Guests at the Zoo often hid in plain sight; one of the Zabinskis’ strategies was to keep the Zoo and its villa pulsing with comings and goings, visitors, friends, and family all the time. The Germans even kept an arms dump on zoo grounds, yards away from the empty animal enclosures where Guests were sometimes hidden. As you can imagine, the risk of discovery was great, and the Zabinskis and their Guests survived several close calls.

The Zabinskis’ story is a fascinating tale of courage and human connection, but I’m not sure Ms. Ackerman was the right person to tell it. I think her goal was to tell the story of quiet acts of domestic heroism and tenacity (as exemplified by Antonina), and that’s why she focuses less on Jan’s work with the underground Home Army, or a straightforward telling of the Zabinskis’ activities during the war and more on the story of the zoo and its animals. Chronicling domestic heroism is an admirable goal, and certainly the book’s strongest moments are those that detail Antonina’s efforts to retain a sense of normalcy and beauty in the midst of terror,  but I kept feeling that people were shortchanged in this book. I would have preferred a book about the Warsaw Zoo with a more equitable focus on its residents — permanent and Guests — or a book that chronicled the lives of women in Warsaw (maybe five or six) who saved lives from home.

Ms. Ackerman is a naturalist and poet, and while at times I found her highly detailed descriptions of locations in Warsaw and everyday life in occupied Poland immensely helpful, at other times I thought that her prose was too purple (yes, even I admit there is such a thing), distracting from the story at the center of The Zookeeper’s Wife. In one instance, especially, I found her voice New-Age-y and her questions insensitive toward her subjects’ privacy. Of her meeting with the Zabinskis’ son, Rys, she writes:

No doubt he found some of my questions odd– I hoped to learn about his mother’s scent, how she walked, her gestures, her tone of voice, how she wore her hair. To all such inquiries, he answered “average,” or “normal,” and I soon realized those were memory traces he either didn’t visit or didn’t wish to share. (312)

Memory traces? Really?

Though the book is organized in roughly chronological order, Ms. Ackerman’s narration is so choppy that it was difficult for me to remember what was happening at any particular time in the zoo.  Time and again it seemed that people dropped out of the story, only to reappear near the end or not at all; sometimes it seemed the author was more interested in describing the antics of animals than the heroism of people. And very often — too often — I put the book down so I could research a name on the internet because people weren’t given enough page-time. Irena Sendler — if you haven’t heard of her, stop reading me and go look her up — appears just three times in the book, despite the fact that she was (a) an amazing heroine and (b) a Guest (person in hiding) at the zoo.

While the focus of The Zookeeper’s Wife is World War II and the events preceding it, I also felt that the book stopped too suddenly at the end of the war; we receive very little information about Jan and Antonina during the Cold War years. I would have liked to learn how they managed under a new totalitarian regime after working so effectively against another.

Ultimately, as you can probably tell, I found this to be a frustrating read. The Zookeeper’s Wife may be worth a read if you’re looking for a stepping stone into the stories of occupied Poland during World War II, or if you’re interested in early-twentieth-century zoo-keeping, or the Nazis’ interest in animal breeding (there’s a bibliography in the back of the book). I’m glad I learned about Antonina and Jan, but I wish it had been in a different format.


And now, on to the Literary Wives questions:

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

The Zookeeper’s Wife focuses on the difficulties of Antonina’s position as a wife, it’s at its best. Antonina can’t ask too many questions about Jan’s underground activities, but she tacitly accepts the danger that he places the family, just as she openly accepts Guests into their home. She maintains the facade of an ordinary housewife during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, a facade which keeps her family and Guests safe. At the same time, she does perform the tasks expected of a wife at the time — keeping the house, budgeting, teaching her son — plus those tasks concomitant with running a house full of pets — all under extreme stress. Part of being a wife, for her, is waiting to see if Jan will come home alive every day, and facing terrifying and dangerous situations on her own, in her own home. There is no safe space for her during the war.

Here’s my favorite sentence in the book: “One of the most remarkable things about Antonina was her determination to include play, animals, wonder, curiosity, marvel, and a wide blaze of innocence in a household where all dodged the ambient dangers, horrors, and uncertainties. That takes a special stripe of bravery rarely valued in wartime” (166).

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

Antonina’s mental and physical toughness notwithstanding, she did defer to Jan in many respects, like a “traditional” housewife, and I found it irritating when he referred to her as “timid.” On the other hand, he acknowledged her bravery often and publicly:

“Antonina was a housewife,” he told Danka Narnish, of another Israeli paper, “she wasn’t involved in politics or war, and was timid, and yet despite that she played a major role in saving others and never once complained about the danger.” (314)

I don’t think I’d say that she defines “wife” or is herself defined by the term.

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

Literary Wives: The Inquisitor’s Wife, by Jeanne Kalogridis

literarywives2If you missed the Literary Wives introductory post, here’s the summary:  I’ll be joining bloggers Ariel, Audra, Cecilia, Kay, and Lynn  as we post every other month about a different book with the word “wife” in the title. When we read these books, we have two questions in mind:

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

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

This month, we’re talking about Jeanne Kalogridis’s novel The Inquisitor’s Wife, which was published in 2013. We invite you to join the discussion by commenting on our blogs (links below) or posting your own review on our shiny new Facebook page, which you can find here.

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!

The Inquisitor's WifeHere’s part of the Goodreads summary of The Inquisitor’s Wife:

In 1480 Seville, Marisol, a fearful young conversa (descendant of Spanish Jews forced to convert to Christianity), is ashamed of her Jewish blood. Forced into a sham marriage with a prosecutor for the new Inquisition, Marisol soon discovers that her childhood sweetheart, Antonio, has just returned to Seville and is also working for the inquisitors. When Marisol’s father is arrested and tortured during Spain’s first auto da fe, Marisol comes to value her Jewish heritage and vows to fight the Inquisition.

What I liked best about this novel: the period details (a family’s palace fallen on hard times, the bearing and sartorial choices of Isabella of Castile, the gruesome ritual of public penance) and its attempt to correct misconceptions about the Spanish Inquisition. Ms. Kalogridis focuses on the plight of conversos — those who converted to Catholicism from Judaism, as well as their descendants — in the city of Seville, and I liked the specificity of the city’s history and geography.

Contemporary scholarship suggests several different motivations behind the Inquisition, and Ms. Kalogridis comes down solidly on the side of Isabella’s desire to acquire the wealth and property of convicted conversos. It’s a convincing performance; Isabella is the most charismatic and dangerous character in the novel.

However, the book suffers when it comes to the “fiction” half of historical fiction. Marisol, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, is thoroughly unlikable, despite her family’s suffering. Now, I don’t mind an unlikable narrator or main character in the right circumstances (Gone Girl, for example, or Shakespeare’s Coriolanus), but we are supposed to empathize with Marisol, and for most of the book, it’s nearly impossible to do so. She’s sullen, selfish, and insensible to her mother’s feelings and heritage and her father’s delicate political position.

When she suddenly stops receiving letters from her childhood sweetheart and devoted fiance, Antonio, does she seek him out or ask her parents to find out what’s going on? No. She sends letters for months and then gives up on him. Clearly she hasn’t read enough novels. When her father subsequently arranges her marriage to their hulking, creepy (and stooge of the Inquisition) neighbor, Gabriel, Marisol doesn’t do what any self-respecting heroine would do (run away, or at least attempt escape) — she merely fumes in silence and refuses to kiss her father goodbye.

This sulky teenager performance is all the worse when we learn that Marisol’s mother is indeed a crypto-Jew, attempting to keep her faith alive after a horrific incident of savagery took her family from her when she was a young child. Marisol’s arranged marriage is obviously an attempt to protect her from the offices of the Inquisition, and the price for that protection turns out to be her father’s life, freely given in exchange for hers. Marisol only finds her courage (and accepts her heritage) when it’s much too late to save her father.

Instead, the novel closes with the revelation of Marisol’s mother’s identity a half-hearted resumption of Marisol’s romance with Antonio (who, obviously to the reader, if not to Marisol, has been working to subvert the Inquisition from within and never stopped loving her.).  I think I understand why Ms. Kalogridis chose to write the novel from the perspective of a conversa who must discover her own heritage, but the secondary characters — particularly Marisol’s mother and Mariam, her friend and servant — have far more interesting stories and perspectives.

And now on to our discussion questions:

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

The book considers the very specific position of wives in fifteenth-century Seville. Women are expected to be obedient to their fathers and husbands, accepting orders, chastisement, and arranged marriages without complaint. Even Marisol’s father, generally portrayed as sympathetic, does not hesitate to strike Marisol’s mother or command her to obey him.

A notable contrast with the wives of Seville is the queen, Isabella, who never appears with her husband in the novel. Powerful, wily, and ruthless, Isabella changes her outward appearance to conform to the expectations of her audience (rich adornment for a private court party, simple black with a crucifix for public occasions or audiences with monks). It’s politically useful for her to appear as a dutiful wife, and so she takes on that appearance — all the while remaining completely independent.

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

As Gabriel’s wife, Marisol expects to follow her mother’s example and submit to her husband’s wishes. Gabriel repulses her, not only because of his creepy fixation on her since childhood, but because he’s cruel and brutal (he beat a defenseless elderly man as a teenager, and as an adult he works for the Inquisition and shows no compunction about having people tortured — including Marisol, late in the book).

However, thanks to Gabriel’s brother’s machinations (and later, Gabriel’s apparent unfamiliarity with female anatomy), the marriage goes unconsummated. According to church doctrine, consummation is required to make the marriage complete; perhaps this is yet another reason why Marisol feels no loyalty to Gabriel. Conveniently, it also makes possible annulment and remarriage to Antonio feasible.

Still, because Marisol is Gabriel’s wife — and a conversa —  Gabriel manipulates her for his own political and personal purposes, and Marisol only thwarts him with subterfuge and help from Mariam. She is obliged by circumstance to fear Gabriel, even though she does not respect him.

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

Audra at Unabridged Chick

Ariel at One Little Library

Cecilia at Only You

Kay at WhatMeRead

Lynn at Smoke and Mirrors

(Emily’s on hiatus for awhile.)

We’ll be reading The Zookeeper’s Wife next, so we hope you’ll stop by again for the next Literary Wives discussion on the first Monday in April.

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

Literary Wives: Una Spenser and DIY Wifehood

literarywives2If you missed the Literary Wives introductory post, here’s the summary:  I’ll be joining founding bloggers Ariel, Audra, and Emily, as well as fellow newcomers Cecilia 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 Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife, the sweeping, imaginative, feminist answer to Moby-Dick.

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!

I read Ahab’s Wife years ago and remembered liking it very much, and I looked forward to reading it again. I like the gusto with which Ms. Naslund throws all she has at Una’s story, giving her connections not only to the characters and world of Moby-Dick, but also to the time and culture of Melville’s novel.

Ahab's Wife

Una experiences much and meets a cast of strange and interesting characters — including Hawthorne, Maria Mitchell, Margaret Fuller (sidebar to myself: a cenotaph to her memory is somewhere in Mount Auburn Cemetery, a must-find), and a young Henry James (this last strains credulity, really). I fear that I’m making the novel sound like a literary Forrest Gump. Ah well. It’s certainly interesting, with passages of real, sensual beauty.

As I read it through this time, I felt as if Ms. Naslund were trying to construct Una as a secular saint, progressive and feminist ahead of her time, flawed but thoughtful. Una understands that “choice lies in the purse” (142); freedom of movement, of action, is often dependent on financial independence, something we twenty-first century feminists think about often. Some of Una’s free-thinking, as it would be called at the time, seems more like wishful thinking on the part of the author.

In the narrative, Nantucket becomes a little free-thinking paradise, and almost everyone gets a happy ending. The lost and the dead are mourned, but never for too long; after all, when reading Goethe, Una prefers Wilhelm: “While Werther disintegrated, Wilhelm learned from the wonder of life, and grew” (387).

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

This novel’s first line is misleading in the opposite way that Moby-Dick‘s is deceptive. “Call me Ishmael,” begins the American epic, leading us to believe that we will learn much about the narrator, this Ishmael. Instead, we are offered lessons in cetology and monomania.

Here, Una begins her narrative: “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last,” which suggests that the novel’s focus will be on her husbands and their marriages. However, Ahab’s Wife is always Una’s story, told from her perspective and focusing on her thoughts and feelings, a bildungsroman that extends into middle life.

Along the way, her adventures offer Una many models of wifehood:

  • Una’s own mother, loyal to an abusive husband whose religious zealotry endangers Una; nonetheless, she is an educated, caring woman who protects her daughter the best way she knows how.
  • Aunt Agatha, in perhaps the novel’s ideal union. She and Torchy are equals, co-parents and co-workers, who face their isolated life with good cheer, open minds, and hands together. However, she, like her sister, is confined, an important epiphany for Una:

For my aunt and my mother, journeying lay in their fingers for the most part. They knew the landscape of colored patches, the rivulets and tributaries of stitchery. They knew the voyage of reading. It seemed an inward journey. But the sea! the sea! How could it not seem freer, wider, more uncharted than anything else one could know? I wanted it for Giles. For any man I loved. Perhaps in sending Kit to play the part of companion, Giles wished me to learn that many men could love me, that choice and not inevitability were the lot of both woman and man.

For my mother and my aunt, the thought of babies revitalized their beings. And yet, I did not just want babies, or men who went to sea. I wanted something for myself. (124)

  • Captain Swift’s absent wife, who died in childbed: “Her bed’s the grave . . . She gave her life for Chester of the darling curls” (161). A reminder of the very real danger Una and any other nineteenth-century woman faced in childbirth; an example of what I like to call the good-dead-wife trope.
  • Sallie Swain, feminine, generous, adherent to the standards of feminine behavior common to her time and place, even on board a merchant vessel.
  • Charlotte Hussey, vivacious and cheerful, practical to a limit. Warm toward her much-older husband, but overcome with her love for Kit.
  • Mrs. Macey, a widow who tells Una the joys of being a sailor’s wife: “You can come to love your own life. Alone” (348).
  • Mary Starbuck, steadfast and loyal, calm and religious and kind, the ideal Quaker wife.

(At over 650 pages, you’d expect it to be a long list, right?)

Una learns over time that the experience of being a wife is not an universal one; neither fidelity nor infidelity, neither solitude nor company, neither cruelty nor kindness may be expected of all spouses. Knowing her own mind, Una chooses her husbands with care; she compares herself to Maria Mitchell, reflecting, “my investments were so much in people” (464). By observing the women and marriages around her, Una chooses pieces of wifehood for herself, crafting an approach to wifehood all her own.

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

What magic there was in the word when it names all that I would be! Mother, daughter, neighbor, friend—I let go of all those names, except my own, for that of wife. I drank the word as if it were wine. (457)

Una comes to marriage on her own terms, and she defines herself as married even when, in the case of her last marriage, there’s no semblance of ceremony or state sponsorship to confirm the union. How she views her own position as “wife” varies from marriage to marriage, but in every marriage, as she says of the second, “I did not question the legitimacy of our marriage, our power to define our lives” (361).

In her first marriage to the mad (and frequently abusive) Kit, Una sees her role as that of caretaker and provider. She plans to sew to make money, to grow food in a garden, to cook and bake with Kit, and do her best to keep him sane. Her loyalty is shaken by his madness, but when Charlotte offers a possible avenue out of the marriage, by gently suggesting that a marriage at sea is not binding, Una refuses the gesture: “We have shared a bed . . . That binds” (320). However, when Una comes to realize that some harms cannot be undone, she lets Kit go with grace and good will, recognizing that his self-preservation will also be her own.

Una’s marriage to Ahab embodies Charlotte’s earlier admonishment: “The world is not closed off, Una, because a man and his wife make a small, inviolate circle at the center of it” (324). Ahab divorces Una from Kit (he had declared them married) and marries her himself on the Pequod‘s deck (“Ahab no more needed the validation of priest or paper than I” [360].). After their first night together, Ahab goes off on a whaling voyage, leaving Una to her own devices. They both relish this independence, especially Una, who realizes that this kind of relationship is not always typical: “Now I was married, but because my husband was independent, so was I” (386, emphasis mine).

Una regards Ahab as more capable of love and devotion than Kit, and delights in Ahab’s passion for her. They meet as partners, bearers of histories: “Nothing was concealed, and though nothing was overtly revealed, all was known. In guilt and in forgiveness we counted ourselves equals, and always had” (475).  Ahab regards their marriage as one of true minds (and I do love a good Shakespeare sonnet), a union of souls for which “marriage” is too common a word. He tells Una in a letter that he would go mad and destroy any thing that kept them apart. Unfortunately for Una, Ahab’s first encounter with Moby Dick leaves Ahab mangled, in body and mind. Though Una does not regard their relationship differently, she sorrows at Ahab’s monomania, and does not try, materially, to stop him from seeking revenge. She knows that he will not return, and grieves for it, but soon settles into new routines.

Una’s third marriage is with Ishmael (I’m afraid I think this last turn is too cute by half), whom she glimpses at times in the story — on board the merchant ship that rescues her with Giles and Kit, and at the dock before the Pequod’s last sailing, for instance. Together, the creative two “write” their tales, united by choice though not custom: “We are not legally married [. . .] but united by our natures. Each day and forever we choose to be husband and wife” (664). Once again, Una chooses a non-traditional (for the nineteenth century, of course) mode of wifehood, focusing on her own continuing choices and those of her partner. Each is independent, though they craft their companionship together.

Now that you’ve read my meanderings on the subject, please visit the other Literary Wives bloggers! 

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

We’d love to hear what you think of Ahab’s Wife, and we hope you’ll join us on December 1, when we’ll be talking about The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress, by Ariel Lawhorn (visit the site at http://www.ariellawhon.com/). 

Recommended Reading: American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld

At 555 pages, this novel, inspired by the life of Laura Bush, is quite an undertaking, in more ways than one. The original four Literary Wives bloggers — Angela, Ariel, Audra, and Emily — have reviewed the book with more insight than I’ll be able to muster, but I thought I’d share just a few thoughts.

American Wife

First, some highlights, passage-wise, for me:

  • Alice’s love for the Midwest: “It is quietly lovely, not preening with the need to have its attributes remarked on” (53).
  • “When you are a high school girl, there is nothing more miraculous than a high school boy” (58).
  • The passage about Alice and Charlie during the tornado warning (193-96); Alice and Charlie are from Wisconsin, and Ms. Sittenfield, like yours truly, is a native of Ohio. I live outside Boston now, and the Boston-born didn’t have tornado drills growing up, and are always amused at the description I provide. But I’ve never been really close to  a tornado, and I have no desire to be, ever. Sidebar here: Immediately read Catherine Pierce’s amazing poem “The Mother Warns the Tornado.”
  • “I have always had a soft spot for people who talk a lot beause I feel as if they’re doing the work for me” (223).
  • I can’t find the page, but I liked the way Alice recognized a single woman based on what she was buying at the grocery store — yogurt and apples (though I have to say, I bought my fair share of hamburger as a single woman. Spaghetti is always the right answer to “What should I make for dinner?”). The novel is full of nice little details like this.
  • Almost any passage involving Alice’s grandmother.
  • “But I should note, for all my resistance to organized religion, that I don’t believe Charlie could have quit drinking without it. It provided him with a way to structure his behavior, and a way to explain that behavior, both past and present, to himself. Perhaps fiction has, for me, served a similar purpose—what is a narrative arc if not the imposition of order on disparate events?—and perhaps it is my avid reading that has been my faith all along” (429-30).

I found Alice, the main character, both intriguing and infuriating, both a product of her time and well ahead of it.

I think Alice’s nods to her privileged existence (when she’s at the pool with Jadey, when she’s thinking about the war at the novel’s end) were cursory, but I couldn’t tell if this is a fault in Alice’s thinking or the author’s failing. Sure, Alice is charitable and cares about others less fortunate than she, but she allows her values to be completely overshadowed by her husband’s. It’s as if Alice disappears, and I didn’t feel Ms. Sittenfield provided a satisfactory explanation for Alice’s weak attempt to explain herself (sorry, “they elected him, not me” doesn’t cut it). At the very least, as a citizen, she should feel free to express her views to her husband.

(Please note: I’m not judging Laura Bush here, because I don’t have the access to the interior self that Sittenfeld provides us for Alice. And literacy rules.)

Despite my frustration, I thought the book was excellent, and as I went along, I began to think that maybe the unresolved ambiguities in Alice’s thoughts and behavior are meant to be inscrutable; after all, how much do we really know about our neighbors’ marriages, or about our own? How much do we want to admit to ourselves?

Musings on Moby-Dick

Here’s a little story about me and Moby-Dick. (Since Ahab’s Wife is up next in the Literary Wives series, I thought I should probably have a look at Moby-Dick; it’s been a few years. I’ll be posting about it every once in awhile as I go along.)

Yes, I know this is a Maine lighthouse, but I don't have any recent pictures of harpooned whales or peg-legged ship captains.

Yes, I know this is a Maine lighthouse, but I don’t have any recent pictures of harpooned whales or peg-legged ship captains.

Now, there was a time when I hated Moby-Dick with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. That was when I was about eleven.

You see, my parents were and are big believers in reading aloud. My Mom read aloud to us when we were little, and when she went back to work and Dad started staying home,  he read aloud individually to us until we left for college (though less in high school when extracurriculars took up more of our time). He chose books in consultation with us, so my brother might be listening to Ivanhoe an hour after Dad read “The Twin Brothers” to our younger sister.

It was a delightful tradition. We’d settle into the comfy chairs in the living room, and Dad would read in his perfectly cadenced voice while I listened, sometimes working on whatever craft project I was trying out that week (never with success, I might add). When I was about eleven, we decided to settle in for a challenge: Moby-Dick.

We hated it. We hated the chapter on Cetology and the long philosophical disquisitions and the drawn-out plot. For years we said it would have been a great story if it had been fifty pages, not the 500 of our hardcover version. We hated it so much that eventually we decided to finish it just so we could say we had done it — we had killed Moby-Dick.

To this day, of all the books Dad read to me, it’s the one I remember best, the one we joke about the most often. Dad gave me the Cliffs Notes to the novel as a Christmas present one year, even though I hated the book so much that I avoided any American Lit course that mentioned it in the course description — and I was an English major!

And yet, something in the back of my brain needled me, like a tooth-pick-sized harpoon. What if I hadn’t given it a fair shot? What if I was too young when I read it? Why did other people (including one of my uncles, a brilliant English teacher) like it so much?

So, more than ten years after I’d read the book with my dad, I tried again. And I loved it. Because it’s musical. Because it’s exciting. Because it’s funny.

No, really. It is.

Consider the very first chapter. We all know the famous first three words, but what follows is a riot. Ishmael decides to put to sea not because the ocean calls to his soul (that bit comes later), but because he’s hilariously, hyperbolically depressed:

whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can (3).

See? Told you it was funny. Now if only I could convince my dad.

Literary Wives

Do you find the current trend of “wife” books (The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Zookeeper’s Wife, American Wife, etc.) encouraging or alarming? Should we feel positive that authors are focusing on female protagonists, or troubled that these women, at least in the titles, are defined by their relationships to others? Or both?

literarywives2

I’m still mulling it over myself, so today I’m pleased as punch to share that I’ll be joining founding bloggers Ariel, Audra, and Emily, as well as fellow newcomers Cecilia and Lynn, in the Literary Wives series. Every other month, we’ll be posting about a different book with the word “wife” in the title, focusing on two questions in particular:

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

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

On October 1, we’ll share our thoughts about Sena Jeter Naslund’s novel Ahab’s Wife.

We hope that you’ll join us by reading along, visiting the six blogs, and sharing your thoughts in the comments!

Meet the Literary Wives Bloggers:

Ariel, of One Little Library

Ariel Coffee Republic

Ariel is an editorial assistant at a Southern California publishing house. A literature enthusiast, she likes heroines full of gumption and conflicts fraught with ethical dilemmas. Her favorite book is and always will be Jane Eyre.

You can find Ariel on Twitter  and Facebook.

Audra, of Unabridged Chick

Audra

Audra is a 30-something married lesbian with a thing for literary fiction and historical novels, classic noir and vintage favorites.  She lives in Boston with her wife and works for a non-profit.  She loves interesting heroines, gorgeous prose, place as character, and the occasional werewolf.

You can find Audra on Facebook and Twitter.

Emily, of The Bookshelf of Emily J.

Emily J

You can find Emily on Facebook.

Carolyn, of Rosemary and Reading Glasses (that’s me!)

Carolyn O picture

After five years in graduate school, Carolyn O is on hiatus to be the read-at-home-parent to her small son. She works as an editor, proofreader, and writer on the side, and hopes to return to teaching soon. She loves used bookstores, early modern drama and poetry, feminism, and anything Joss Whedon creates.

You can find Carolyn on Twitter.

Cecilia, of Only You

Cecilia

Cecilia teaches writing and self-presentation skills to international professionals by day and night (the curse of time zone differences) and in between squeezes in some reading and writing of her own. Her reading tastes are pretty eclectic, though she loves literary fiction and memoir most of all, and works by women and international writers in particular. The best part of her day is the end-of-the-day book club that she shares with her 9 year old son.

You can find Cecilia on Twitter and Facebook.

Lynn, of Smoke & Mirrors

Lynn

Lynn writes that she is “an avid (some might say “obsessive”!) reader, former Borders bookseller (my dream job!), and now blogger of books and reviews! My only limitation to reading and posting more often is that necessary full-time job! I am mother to three sons, soon-to-be 10 (yes, 10!) grandchildren, and one beautiful and “purr”fect gray kitty, Smokie…oh, and perhaps most importantly, I can count one of the kindest, most caring, and complex men I’ve ever known as my full-time partner and husband! Life is good!”

You can find Lynn on Twitter.