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The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

picture of book cover

 

There’s no way around the fact that The Wife: A Novel is one of the most depressing books I’ve read. And if you’re familiar with my reading list, that’s no small feat.

I still loved it.

What makes The Wife: A Novel so impressive is that Meg Wolitzer doesn’t rely on any traditional plot points or twists to make her work throb with gravitas. There’s no sex scandal, no terminal illness, no legal battle and while death pays a visit, it’s almost irrelevant.

No, what makes The Wife so depressing, at least to me, is what Wolitzer is saying about writing, women and marriage. The story begins with Joan Castleman on a flight to Helsinki, where her husband, fabled novelist Joseph Castleman, is about to receive a major literary prize. Joan has decided to leave Joe, and her reasons why are fleshed out in flashbacks by telling the story of how they met, their careers and their children.

Is there a job more enjoyable than writing? Not to me. But writing, at least for the novelist, is not for anyone without thick skin and an unshakable belief in one’s ability. When Joan meets Joe, she herself has dreams of writing. However, coming of age at Smith in the late 1950s and then working at a publishing house, she is quick to learn how male-dominated the world of writing is. The boom of so-called “chick-lit,” and the huge popularity of authors of Jodi Picoult make one think it’s a different landscape 50 years later. But I’m not convinced. Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer aside, I can think of many female writers – Wolitzer, Lionel Shriver, Jennifer Haigh, Hillary Mantel – who I would like to see get the popular recognition of Nick Hornsby or David Nicolls.

There are few characters that have resonated with me like Joan. But for those who aren’t super interested in the writing life, you should still read this book because of Wolitzer’s exploration of the Castleman’s marriage. “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. … Everyone needs a wife, even wives need wives,” Wolitzer writes. Joseph is a philanderer and terribly disrespectful to his wife, but Wolitzer doesn’t make him a caricature, just someone who wants life to work out the way he wants it to work out.

This is a story that won't be everyone's cup of tea - it's not what I would recommend for a light summer beach read. But since The Wife: A Novel came out almost 10 years ago, it’s easy to find in paperback or perhaps in your local used bookstore. For those who have enjoyed Wolitzer in the past, or are just discovering her, it’s definitely worth an investment of your time.