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)