Book Review: The Wife, by Meg Wolitzer
by Renee Kimball
“The moment I decided to leave him, the moment I thought, enough, we were thirty-thousand feet above the ocean, hurtling forward but giving the illusion of stillness and tranquility. Just like our marriage.”
In 2003, Scribner published The Wife by Meg Wolitzer—a short novel of 219 pages, and it packs a punch. For those women of a certain age and time, it is a knock-out punch that is visceral and blinding. Wolitzer’s writing is exacting, deeply pointed, writing that draws the reader into the heart of the story, towards the character—the wife.
It is a story of women born in the ’40s and ’50s who were expected to became wives and mothers—the only worthy feminine social contract of the age. The goal was respectable: women, as mere women, had no other option for fulfillment than as wife and mother. Many women today cannot relate to this story; it will come at them like a foreign language, no meaning, gibberish—make-believe murmurings, not acceptable, unbelievable.
Although women had earned the right to vote in 1920, during the ’40s and ’50s they were still somehow something less; feminists’ rising voices were in the future. A successful marriage—a good husband, a home, children—was the purpose of womanhood. It was a long time before society would accept that women might want more, or could contribute outside the home, offer something other than what had been preordained by a male dominated world.
It is hard to imagine that being a woman during that time offered limited life choices and failed to offer much that could be achieved without male approval. The gender differences were deeper then, more difficult, more ingrained. Being a wife, the wife of a successful man, keeping a home, raising children, was the goal.
The Wife is the story of a woman who becomes the wife of a “great” novelist—a man who wants it all—sexual conquest, notoriety, money, lasting fame—and her part nurturing and ensuring that those dreams come true. She sits on the sidelines through the years, willingly relinquishing the loss of herself and her own innate talent as a writer.
“He was Joseph Castleman, one of those men who own the world. You know the type I mean: those advertisements for themselves, those sleepwalking giants, roaming the earth and knocking over other men, women, furniture, villages. Why should they care? . . There are many varieties of this kind of man: Joe was the writer version, a short, wound-up, slack-bellied novelist who almost never slept, . . . who had no idea how to take care of himself or anyone else. . .” (p. 11).
In this marriage, the wife doesn’t shrink from exposing her own weaknesses and her acquiescence to play her part—she proclaims her personal failures loudly—admitting surrendering her life to a man who basically exploited her mind, talents, and body to enrich his own life. She quietly works and goes along to get along; she plays nice and gives up everything without a fight. She blames herself, stating she was lazy, she was too easy; she is remorseful she was not stronger, more forceful, more demanding of her worthiness.
In The Wife, Joan is a young earnest co-ed at Smith, enraptured by her mesmerizing married English professor, Joe Castleman. An affair ensues, and Joe divorces and abandons his wife and newborn daughter. Joe—with Joan in tow- moves to New York to pursue becoming a famous author. While Joan is forced to work to sustain them; Joe stays in their squalid apartment with roaches in attendance and writes his novel.
“It kills me to say it, but I was his student when we met. There we were in 1956, a typical couple, Joe intense and focused and tweedy, me a fluttering budgie circling him again and again. . .None of us was in the thick of anything in 1956 we understood that we were being kept separate from the world that mattered. . .We were being preserved for some other purpose, willingly suspending ourselves like specimens in agar for four years.” (p. 38-39).
Throughout it all, the marriage is held together by Joan’s efforts, through the birthing of Joe’s first novel, the further birthing of three children that follow, long years of Joe’s constant infidelity, and Joe’s unending neediness and whininess, and at last, the attainment of his final monumental success, the Helsinki Prize for literature.
Withstanding all the humiliation, the pain, the children and attendant issues, and her sheer monstrous personal sacrifices —Joan remains stoic, supportive, ever willing to smooth, console, and face whatever crisis assaults them all over the long years. Joan never strays, she doesn’t waiver, she lives to make her husband successful and proud, she never says no to his demands no matter how outrageous, even if those demands degrade her morally, ethically, while crushing her belief in herself, she remains steadfast in her purpose—Joe’s dream—that the world acknowledge him as a literary author, a writer of great fiction, memorable for all time.
“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 husband and children will ride serenely through life.” (p. 183).
In the face of her personal loss of her creative self, Joan passes that talent on to her husband gladly, keeping silent, working tirelessly to enrich his life and career in confirmation of their union as man and wife. As Joe’s fame increases, she benefits and does not deny that; yet, she suffers in silence, knowing there is more to the literary success than Joe’s brilliance: it is her brilliance that brought this about for him, out of love, adoration, anger at his infidelity, even her own deep seated confusion, she isn’t really sure.
As Joan ages, becoming angry with herself, with her silence, with Joe, with the life of secrecy that she allowed to grow layer by layer around her, angry at the lies that kept the children outside her life safely unaware of the truth behind their father’s prodigious output, their mother’s silent necessary secret. Joan knows that speaking the truth at this late date would not only destroy their carefully crafted life, splinter their family, eradicate their hard-won position in the elite literary circles, but destroy her life’s mission—the belief that Joe is a great novelist. In turn, the truth would then erase her as well.
All throughout the marriage she remains his rock and muse—but she is more, so much more, and we do not know the extent of her worth until the end of the story. While she simmers and her distaste for her life grows out of control, her repulsion, her self-loathing rises even more, and she reaches the decision to break free for whatever time she is left, reaching towards a life without Joe, a life of freedom.
Not all women can relate to this story—it seems farfetched that a woman would give up her intellectual gifts so easily to live in the shadow of a well-known author, allowing him the spotlight, the adulation, the honors. Sadly, many know this tale in one form or another, and it exists in many relationships even now, but we hope that there are more options today for these bright and talented women.
But there is so much more to Joe and Joan’s story in the end. It will not be spoiled for you here; read it for yourself. The Wife is not a novel for all women, but it is not so narrow a tale that the subtleties and nuances of the relationship have no meaning—it is a worthy read.
**The Finlandia Prize (Finlandia-palkinto) is a literary award in Finland by the Finnish Book Foundation. It is awarded annually to the author of the best novel written by a Finnish citizen (Finlandia Award), children’s book (Finlandia Junior Award), and non-fiction book (Tieto-Finlandia Award). The award sum (as of 2010) is 30,000 euros (previously 100,000 Finnish Marks). Works may be in Finnish or Swedish but non-Finnish citizens are not allowed to enter. However, in 2010 the Finnish Book Foundation made an exception for a nominee.
The movie adaptation of The Wife stars Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce.
Book Photo: Courtesy by Amazon.com
A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters and rescues both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.