Sunday, February 28, 2010

Book Review: The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

The beginning of this book really grabbed me. The voice was moving and the early plot was interesting: a woman is on an airplane with the husband she had been with for a long time, and has decided at that very moment to leave him.

Of course, such a decision is never made at that very moment. A lot has gone into such a decision. And so the narrator takes us back with her through the history of the relationship between her and her husband. We find out that it began in the 1950's, when she was his creative writing student at Smith College and he was married. That's rather cliche, and so are a lot of things about their relationship. I thought that Wolitzer did a convincing job of showing me that this is what it could be like for a couple who began in such a way, as cliche as it may have been.

There were other cliched parts of The Wife, though, that I didn't think she portrayed so well. Essentially this is supposed to be a story about a wife who sacrifices everything for her husband. The first part of the book is the strongest in my opinion, because the reader can easily see how she sacrifices the approval and support of her parents and her college education for this selfish, haphazard, impulsive man who doesn't truly love anyone, including himself. The reader can see how he is so caught up in his ambitions of writing that he is incapable of being much else. (The "selfish writer" is a theme I always find interesting, in Andre Dubus's short stories and in biographies of Raymond Carver, etc., because it does seem that being a successful writer requires a narrowly-focused, internal, solitary drive, to the exclusion of most everything else in life.)

What wasn't convincing in The Wife, however, was that the narrator was supposed to be giving up her own writing ambitions or her "career" for her husband. The problem was, she never really had any writing ambitions until her professor-turned-husband encouraged her, for the sake of starting an affair with her of course, and she never reveals that she has any desires to have a career outside of the home. In the flashback scenes to her early and mid-married life, she either seems content to be a housewife or she is bitter about the fact that her husband is cheating on her.

Perhaps it's that times have changed or perhaps it's that I can't relate to a character that I can't see myself being, but I just didn't understand why she put up with it. She seems to be resentful of the fact that her husband thinks he is some God when it comes to writing, yet she obviously encourages such thoughts by placating to him, encouraging his writing career and staying with him even though he doesn't treat her right. If this was supposed to be a book that showed why a woman sacrifices her own dreams (or never fully forms any in the first place) in order to stay with a rotten, no-good husband, it failed. But maybe it wasn't supposed to show me that; maybe it was supposed to just be about this character. Still, for whatever reasons I found those parts very unconvincing and it made me dislike the narrator when she seemed to get whiny and become a "poor-me" victim. The following is a passage that I feel sums up the theme of the book:

"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.

But it's their choice... they make a choice to be that kind of wife, that kind of mother. Nobody forces them anymore; that's all over now. We had a women's movement in America, we had Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem... we're in a whole new world now. Women are powerful.

Everyone needs a wife; even wives need wives. Wives tend; they hover. Their ears are twin sensitive instruments, satellites pricking up the slightest scrape of dissatisfaciton. Wives bring broth, we bring paper clips, we bring ourselves and our pliant, warm bodies. We know just what to say to the men who for some reason have a great deal of trouble taking consistent care of themselves or anyone else.

'Listen,' we say. 'Everything will be okay.'

And then, as if our lives depend on it, we make sure it is."

(Click here for more quotes from The Wife)

The ending of The Wife contains a twist which wasn't incredibly surprising but was nevertheless interesting. I don't want to include any spoilers, so suffice it to say that it adds another layer to the entire analysis about why a woman would do such things for a man.

I did think that The Wife was written well and that the first-person narrator voice, when not overly bitter or victim-y, was intriguing. Although there wasn't much to the plot--basically a history of the life of an unhappily married couple--it seemed realistic and it kept me interested, as I read the book straight through in a couple of days. I would like to read more of Meg Wolitzer's work, especially a book that has a completely different theme, plot and characters. So overall I give The Wife three and a half stars and I would recommend it with some reservations.

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Quotes from The Wife

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Parts of this book reminded me of Women Like Us by Erica Abeel, which is a book about a group of girlfriends who graduated in 1959 from Sarah Lawrence College. Most of them curtailed their dreams and ambitions for the men in their lives. Click here for my review of Women Like Us.


  1. I've had Wolitzer's Ten-Year Nap on Mt. TBR for months but have yet to get to it. As I recall it has some issues re: discontented wives as well. Wolitzer doesn't seem to think much of wives for whom raising a family, maybe even not working outside of the home, is the priority.

  2. Really. Maybe that is why her narrator falls flat and seems a bit unconvincing to me. I read this article about the Ten-Year Nap, where Wolitzer makes it seem like she tries to accurately and fairly portray stay at home moms in that book. But The Wife didn't feel like an accurate or fair portrayal (if such a thing could exist?) of women who stay with philandering husbands. It felt like she was judging the character as she was writing her, if that makes sense.