In her novel The Wife, Meg Wolitzer tells the story of a talented writer who sacrifices her own career to marry a man who becomes a famous novelist. Or rather, Wolitzer lets Joan tell her own story, beginning with her decision to leave her husband, a narcissistic philanderer, as the two of them are flying to Helsinki, where Joe will accept a prestigious award. The couple are in their sixties, their children long gone from the nest. Their comfortable golden years await.
After one or two pages I was already wondering why Joan stayed so long. The novel provides a complicated answer, a tangle of circumstances and character.
In a series of flashbacks, Joan relates how she and Joe meet and fall in love back in the 1950s while she’s a student at Smith. He’s her creative writing instructor (what a surprise), married with a newborn daughter (even less of a surprise). Their affair discovered, they flee the college in disgrace and begin their life together in a shabby Greenwich Village apartment. Joan goes to work to support Joe’s ambition to become a successful novelist. Although she has considerable talent as a writer, she sees little point in trying to pursue a career of her own.
In the 1950s the literary establishment was dominated by men and the stereotypical male novelist — a lusty, macho guy who wrote sprawling novels. Think Normal Mailer and James Jones. With a few exceptions, women’s writing was undervalued.
While at Smith, Joan attends the reading of Elaine Mozell, a writer whose first novel had good reviews but dismal sales. At the party afterward, Elaine warns Joan she cannot hope to win the attention of the male reviewers and editors “who decide who gets to be taken seriously, who gets put up on a pedestal for the rest of their lives.” These gatekeepers make sure “women’s voices [will remain] hushed and tiny and the men’s voices loud.”
Elaine Mozell’s warning echoes in Joan’s head for years afterward, a reminder that she would have failed anyway.
In the 1970s the literary landscape begins to change, but by then Joan has settled into the marriage. She has three children. She thinks it’s too late. So she stays in the marriage and puts up with Joe’s preening and fooling around with other women. By the end of The Wife, the extent of her sacrifice becomes clear. It’s heartbreaking.
Despite the sad story, The Wife is often savagely funny. Wolitzer gives her protagonist acute vision, cutting wit, and rage all the fiercer for having been suppressed. Of her once sexy husband Joan says:
Now he was old, with a humbling bio-prosthetic heterograft porcine valve (however you slice it, it’s just pig meat) stuck like a clove into his heart, and pig memories somehow looped into his brain: happy images of rooting around among old nectarines and tennis shoes.
Wow. Joe is sleeping beside a razor and doesn’t even know it.
Days after finishing The Wife, I’m still pondering Elaine Mozell and the role she plays in Joan’s choice. Elaine speaks the truth without regard for the damage it will do. I guess that’s a good thing. Better than lying, anyway. But it’s truth shaded by bitterness. Come to think of it, Elaine never tells Joan to stop writing, only to forget about impressing the men. She says, “Find some other way.” Advice so buried in negativity that Joan doesn’t understand it for decades.
I want to believe there’s another way — always — and failure won’t happen unless I give up. But I know too much about the intractability of life to think it’s that simple. Sometimes there are no good choices, only bad and worse ones. I’ve gone the wrong way more than once. And probably will again. I value Joan’s story, with its less than happy ending, for showing how even a terrible choice may be redeemable if one can face the truth.
One of my all time favorite books. Insightful review.
Thanks, I’m pleased you liked it. Meg Wolitzer has an essay, The Second Shelf, in last Sunday’s NYT book review section. She argues that fiction by women is relegated to a second tier. She analyzes various book covers to show how they signal whether the contents are male fiction or female fiction. It’s an interesting read.