Literary Wives: The Wife, The Maid, and The Mistress

I got a slow start on The Wife, The Maid, and The Mistress (2014) by Ariel Lawhon, which kept me from fully getting into the book until I had time to really sit down with it.  I tried to read it a few minutes at a time before bed, but I was too tired and kept having to put it aside so I could sleep.  From this, I learned that this is a book to be enjoyed in large chunks, especially since it constantly changes time periods.  That must be managed with a very good memory or a more frequent and sustained engagement with the novel.

The book, to be released in January 2014, is the December pick for the Literary Wives series.  I recommend that you visit the blogs of the other participants to join the conversation and get a full sense of what this novel has to offer.  Also feel free to visit the author’s site: http://www.ariellawhon.com/.

Ariel of One Little Library

Audra of Unabridged Chick  (Audra will have an interview with the author as well!)

Carolyn O. of Rosemary and Reading Glasses

Cecilia of Only You

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

Kay of WhatMeRead

My reaction to this book is positive.  I enjoyed it.  I found it to be engaging and suspenseful.  Although it struck me as light fiction and as appealing solely to women, I still enjoyed the experience.  What was most fascinating isn’t the twist, which I saw coming, but the story behind the entire concept.  It examines the disappearance of New York City Judge Joseph Crater, which remains to this day an unsolved mystery.  Learning about this historical occurrence from the 1930s fascinated me.  I also appreciated how the author included some information at the back of the book about each character, clarifying what was true and what was fiction.  It rounded out the experience for me, because reading the fictional account left me wondering more about the actual history of the disappearance.

wife maid mistress cover

As to the role of wife, this book doesn’t actually say much about it directly, but there are some implicit themes.  From the maid, Maria, we learn that wives are beautiful and hardworking and that they may be necessary in helping a husband to achieve success and promotion.  Maria pulls some strings for Jude’s police promotion, but the results cause more heartache because of the rampant corruption in the city.  It all involves Judge Crater, a mobster named Owney Madden, and the police department.  Maria tries to do right by her husband, and even takes it a step further than most wives would take it (the twist) to help and protect him.  The sorrow in her life is the inability to have children, which she learns later on is due to ovarian cancer.  Ultimately, Maria dies and cannot fulfill her duties as wife, but she tries, despite having to get involved in corruption and deceit, to do so while she’s living.

From the mistress, we learn that the role of wife is one to run away from.  Although not a large part of the narrative, Sally Lou Ritz’s marriage turns out to be one of the more heartwarming and charming aspects of the book’s conclusion.  She is a showgirl who runs around with mobsters and sleeps with the judge, but she has a husband in a mid-western town that she abandoned.  From her mistakes in New York City and her deceit, which almost costs her life, she learns that she must go home.  She returns to her husband, who takes her back.  What I learned from this is that the role of husband (and wife) is one that requires forgiveness, even when the sins and mistakes seem too huge to surmount.  Ritzi’s husband is a man to be admired, and his example is one for all spouses.  And despite Ritzi’s ambitions and free lifestyle, she is the one who can conceive and have a child.  She seems the most unfit for motherhood, but with the forgiveness of her husband, and the safety she finds back in his home, she seems to have the makings of a wonderful mother at the novel’s close.

From the wife of the missing judge, we learn about the oppression of women during the 1930s.  She is mostly a sex object made to look pretty on Judge Crater’s arm for political reasons.  She doesn’t have a lot of say in her marriage, nor do any of the women in the narrative.  Stella’s job is to stay pretty and be proper and to ignore her husband’s infidelity and backroom business deals.  She is treated as if she is too stupid (read “female”) to be aware of her husband’s despicable activities, but she is very much aware and proves strong enough to deal with his problems.  Yet before she decides to take control, she smiles pretty and turns a blind eye.  It is her job, but she ultimately rejects it and acts out.  Interestingly, she, like Maria, is barren and has no children.

What is most moving about this book is the action of the three women.  While the men in the novel seem to be larger-than-life and in control of almost everything, including the money from a woman’s bank account, the women subvert this, quite slyly and ingeniously (and devilishly).  It left me with an overall impression of the women as strong without needing the credit.  In some ways, they are trickster characters, who do their work without recognition but ultimately yield more change, results, and control.  The men think they are running the show, but the women pull a fast one and that appealed to me, despite the sinful and devious nature of that fast one.  To find out exactly what that action is, you’ll have to read the book!

My favorite scene and quote is when Maria visits a doctor for her infertility.  He says to her, “It rains on the just and the unjust, Mrs. Simon.  That’s the first thing you learn in my profession.  There is no fair.  Nor is there the ability to help everyone” (p. 66).  This is a hard thing to learn, but it’s the truth.  It may be the most truth uttered from any character in the book.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read from the Literary Wives series.  It was a light, engaging, and mysterious read.  It has been a while since I read a mystery novel, although I loved Nancy Drew as a child, and this rekindled a bit of that need to solve and riddle through a book.

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22 thoughts on “Literary Wives: The Wife, The Maid, and The Mistress

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  1. Emily, your comments about gettiing into a book that is complex are so true. I have started too many books that have been set aside for later for the reasons you note. I look forward to reading it. Thanks, BTG

  2. I love this thoughtful review, Emily! I reacted to it in exactly the same way (including the slow start) and you described it all so well. I too thought of it as a light read – a good break from the heavier literary fiction I’ve been reading over the last few months – but fun nonetheless and interesting in terms of the opportunity to learn about this real life event.

    In terms of the notions about wife I especially like what you said about the importance of forgiveness. I felt that very few husbands could have done what Ritzi’s husband did. I agree, too, about how women can be strong without taking the credit. I see this in real life too. I had a massage therapist who once said to me that her male clients are always in there groaning and acting like they had just fought the world (and making sure she knew about it), while her women clients are often in worse shape and in greater pain but never complain. 🙂

    1. Ha! That is so funny about the massage clients. We women know what pain is, especially after we’ve given birth. I’ve heard that women actually do have a higher tolerance for pain, but I can’t remember the study… I’ll just keep repeating it like it’s true! 🙂

  3. Emily — I too was so struck by the grace shown by Ritzi’s husband, and found myself echoing that I hoped my spouse could have as much love and patience should I ever do something so awful. And I’d hope I could as well. I’m not a fan of suffering through a bad marriage but the fact that there’s obvious transformation in Ritzi made her return to her husband so sweet. I thought she got the only happy ever after of the novel.

    To be fair, I thought Jude and Maria had grace, too, in that — when they finally shared with each other the lies that had been building up — they remained a committed pair. But Maria’s end was so sad and felt so unfair (I love that you particularly pulled out the doctor’s quote, because it so resonated with me) and it took away some of that beauty. Of course, that Jude got hit with a final betrayal stung for me, too.

    1. Yes, I agree. Maria and Jude handled things gracefully as well. I really liked Maria, and it irked me when she as stereotyped and handled roughly by the men. And I agree, suffering through a bad marriage isn’t necessary, but if you can make it work, then do it. It seems in Ritzi’s case, she wasn’t necessarily abused, but she was unhappy because of unrealized dreams. When those dreams turned out to be nightmares, it was fortunate that her husband was willing to allow her those mistakes.

  4. Great review!! I also love what you said about Ritzi’s husband. That was the part of the book I wanted to know so much more about! But I understand the need to cut some back story to really focus on the plot. I also liked that the women seemed to pull one over on the men. The women didn’t really need my sympathy because they had it under control, and they were still thoughtful, intriguing characters.

    1. It’s amazing how much control they had, even when as a reader I didn’t realize it! I kind of wish that the author will do a prequel or sequel about Ritzi. I found her and the story we didn’t get to hear most compelling.

  5. Nice review, Emily! Good point about the little blurbs in the back of the book, too — those were quite helpful. I found Ritzi annoying, but I did want to know more about her husband and what made her leave him — the dream of Broadway glory just seems so cliche.

  6. I like the way you give these three women the credit I feel they deserve for manipulating the seemingly all-powerful men, Emily! I believe at least one of the others mentioned they also felt Ritzi “learned” that she must go home and return to her marriage/husband. Somehow, I felt it was just another survival tactic; in the 1930’s I doubt there was much acceptance, let alone help, for a single mother, hence, her return to her roots. I do believe Ritzi’s character was resourceful (including her part in the conspiracy) to enable her survival, no matter what the costs or dangers. Thanks for making me think about this!!

    1. It’s so interesting you describe her as ‘resourceful’, Lynn — I actually found her to be, in some ways, the most naive of the group. I found Maria to be shockingly flinty, actually, whereas Ritzy struck me as a girl who learned, hard and quick, how silly her dreams were. She was manipulated into everything, from her job to her affair with Crater, to setting him up, and I found her fleeing back to her husband (rather than giving her baby to Maria) to be a kind of kneejerk scared reaction.

    2. Good point about a lack of choices then, Lynn. I just did a study on the cultural messages for women in the 1930s, and by and large the studies I looked at found that women were told to go home and make white babies in the popular films and magazines of the time, despite them entering the workplace in large numbers. How different Ritzi’s story would have been if her lover had been anything but white.

  7. I enjoyed your review, but I’m not sure I would care for the book too much! Quiet subversion is good and well when it’s the only option available to oppressed, would-be protagonist females, but somehow I get the sense that the book is a bit hollow.

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