I’m taking a cynical approach with this month’s Literary Wives book pick, My Father’s Wives (2015) by Mike Greenberg. It seems to me that the book taught that wives are expendable and that wives are always there for children, even when those children aren’t their own. I’ll explain in more detail later, but first, let me remind you of or introduce you to the Literary Wives Series.
Every two months, a group of bloggers reads a book with word “wife” in the title, and we attempt to answer the following two questions in our posts for that month.
1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?
Please visit these other fantastic bloggers for their take on this month’s books, and if you’d like to join the conversation, on our blogs or on yours by reading along, feel free to do so.
Naomi of Consumed by Ink
Kay of What Me Read
Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors
Let me explain my cynicism. This book is about a grown man who suspects his own wife of cheating. He spirals downward and ends up going for a night on the town with his wild and rowdy boss, but in the end turns down extramarital sex with a woman he doesn’t know. So, we’re supposed to think he’s a good guy. But in my opinion, a good guy wouldn’t have ever asked his boss to take him out partying for the night knowing that it would involve drugs and prostitutes.
As Jonathan Sweetwater continues to wonder about his wife, he begins to wonder about his past and his father’s past. He didn’t know his father well, but he was apparently a well-known, high-ranking senator who married some six times. Jonathan’s mother was the first wife, and while his mom can tell him about his father from the perspective she had during that short time, she can’t reveal everything. So Jonathan seeks out the rest of his father’s wives searching to know both his father and himself. From this, I learned that wives are expendable, and that even though they were all discarded by his father, all of them are happy to see Jonathan when he shows up in their lives and they each spend time talking with him about his father. The women do not take center stage in this narrative, despite the fact that they are the ones with the answers and the insights. The book is not really about these wives at all, but instead about men, both Jonathan and his father, and how women play a rather pitiful role in their lives. I dislike this.
My second criticism, that the book teaches us that wives are always there for children, also plays out through this narrative. None of the women turn Jonathan away, or tell him awful things about his father. They all come across as nurturing, in their own ways, and they all help Jonathan in some way. I don’t see how Jonathan necessarily deserves this, or why the women would be interested in talking about his father, but they are, and it helps Jonathan in the end. They seem to help him through a mid-life crisis. And ultimately, he turns back to his own wife for comfort, ease, and happiness. She turns out to be just what he needs. However, I never felt as if the women in this book were getting what they needed, or that their feelings mattered. The book revolved around Jonathan, and the way the women tended to him because, oh, he was so emotionally distraught. I was frankly annoyed by his ability to use these women and think only about himself.
The subtle sexism in this male-centric narrative isn’t always subtle. In the beginning of the book, Jonathan recounts his girlfriends from earlier days. He describes one as beautiful and intelligent. “That was her problem, and ultimately her downfall: too many options. Women that beautiful and intelligent have an almost unlimited menu from which to choose, which sounds like a blessing but is often a curse because they can never commit to anything” (p. 3). What a bunch of sexist B.S., which I’ve heard before from male coworkers. Women have too many choices, my big toe. Women are debilitated by options, oh my pancakes! I guess women are inferior, because the same “problem” doesn’t seem to afflict men at all.
Not only does Jonathan perpetuate this ridiculous detritus throughout the book, crap that no doubt the author believes, the women say stupid things too. One of his father’s wives says, “He was more vulnerable than any man I’ve ever encountered . . . Women are accustomed to men who want us, but there is nothing quite as irresistible as a man who needs us” (emphasis in original, p. 119). What does this mean? That women like being objects, especially when that means they are needed? I’m not sure that all women enjoy being caretakers 24/7, and I would imagine that most women would find even more attractive a man who considered them an equal and who acted as a partner within a marriage, rather than a giant baby who needs his diaper changed.
To top it all off, when Jonathan meets the last wife, she asks if all of them are alike. Jonathan replies, “You all seem sad” (p. 144). I guess this is innocuous, but it bothered me that all of these women, who were used and dumped by his larger-than-life father, are supposedly still mourning him and sitting around being sad, rather than living their own fulfilling lives and moving on. The women do have talents and careers, but these are all overlooked by Jonathan, who only sees them through the lens of his father’s influence. Wives, then, are apparently only “something” in relation to their husbands. In addition, another wife mentioned that in her divorce from Jonathan’s father, that the “only stipulation was that I maintained his name for the rest of my life” (p. 146). Again, we see that women are property and only worth something if labeled, maintained, or connected to a husband.
I guess there are some good things to take away from this book. It was a short, fast read. That was a blessing. And in the end, Jonathan’s mother described an important lesson that his father left behind by not accepting things the way they were. “The key to life is learning to put up with the imperfections. If you expect life to be perfect, you will always be disappointed. If you expect yourself to be perfect, you will never be satisfied. And if you expect others to be perfect, you will always be alone” (p. 153).
I love this Emily! You went even further than I did in your scorning of the book. I wasn’t really thinking of it as being so sexist – to me it just seemed ridiculous. I think the sexist stuff says more about Jonathan than his father’s wives. I was assuming that, just because Jonathan saw them all as sad and in a pathetic light, it didn’t mean that they were. We really don’t know much about any of them at all. Except they did all make the mistake of marrying Percy, but we all make mistakes and get over them.
I also thought it was laughable that he was made out to be such a great guy because he turned down a couple of women in the course of his ‘journey’. And, yes, poor Claire, she must really love being Jonathan’s wife – she seems to have no complaints or faults whatsoever – the perfect wife! It makes me wonder how much of this book is a reflection of the author? Eek.
I did like Jonathan’s mother. She seemed pretty normal, and despite being his actual mother, catered to him less than some of the other women did.
And, I love this: “I’m not sure that all women enjoy being caretakers 24/7, and I would imagine that most women would find even more attractive a man who considered them an equal and who acted as a partner within a marriage, rather than a giant baby who needs his diaper changed.” Ha! 🙂
You’re right. The “actual” wives aren’t necessarily what Jonathan viewed them to be. I had a line in there about them actually being wise and savvy, but I couldn’t make it fit well with the rest of what I’d written, so I cut it. But, agreed! We didn’t know them much at all. Glad you feel the same way about this one as I do! Crappy novel.
The funny thing is, there was something fun about reading a crappy novel. I was glad it was short, though – I felt like I was wasting a few brain cells.
Me too! I read it on an airplane, so that seemed to help a bit.
I’m glad you mentioned that comment about women who are beautiful and intelligent. It really ticked me off at the time, but I had forgotten about it by the time I wrote my review. You are absolutely right. You made some great points, and saying that the book was about men was actually what I felt without being able to quite get it to the top of my mind.
Thanks, Kay. I’m glad we read this one for the perspective, but it really hasn’t been as fruitful in terms of learning about wives. 🙂
No, that’s very true. I’ve been thinking about this problem awhile, because some of the other books we’ve read haven’t been that fruitful either. I don’t know how, but perhaps we need to think about a better way to signal that a book is about wives than having “Wives” in the title, it seems. I know that was the impetus for starting the group, but I was just reflecting that the book I am reading now about the Borgias (Blood & Beauty) has a lot more to say about how wives were regarded in the middle ages than this book says about wives at all. But I can’t think of another way to pick books except maybe by suggestions from our club members for books they have already read.
Oh interesting. I had the same thought when I read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. It was very much like The Paris Wife or American Wife, but without the word “wife” in the title, we can’t pick it, although I think the group might find it more enjoyable and interesting than this one.
Maybe we should discuss this with the group. It would be more difficult, because one person would have read each book already, but it might be worth it. I have frequently found myself at a loss of what to say about wives, depending upon the book we’ve read.
Sounds like the best lesson is in the final paragraph uttered by Jonathan’s mother.
Yep. That’s about the only useful thing I got from this novel. 🙂
This is not the first time one of your “wife” books was really about the man. In fact, if I were to make a generalization, it sounds as if books with “Wife” in the title are actually all about the men. And does that mean that books with “Husband” in the title are about the women? I wonder. I doubt it though, because I haven’t seen many “husband” titles out there.
Thanks for your review. I’ll skip this one.
This is my favorite comment ever! You are so right. We should start a “literary husbands” and test out your theory, although I suspect that we don’t need to conduct a study to know what the results would be.
You all crack me up! 🙂 I got as much enjoyment out of reading these comments as anything! Wow, Emily! This one really hit you over the head, didn’t it? So sorry it didn’t seem to be worthwhile to any of you. I enjoyed it, for what it was. Not my favorite read ever, but I believe I could relate a bit better to certain of the themes. I agree, Emily, this was certainly NOT a feminist read at all, but not every book will be? I felt this hit you much as The Bishop’s Wife hit me! I just couldn’t get over how angry it made me! 🙂 Regarding pre-screening LW books: I think that’s half the fun, just because “wife” or “wives” is in the title doesn’t mean that’s the main theme and that’s the fun of it! But then…I am also probably the only person left in this world who still wouldn’t want to know the sex of my unborn child, that was the surprise in giving birth! 🙂 I have posted a review of a book whose title did not contain the word wife or wives on our FB page. (I think Emily or someone else may have also done that in the past.) Perhaps when you read/review a book that has alot to say about wives, you could include it there? That book was Saving Grace by Jane Green. A rather creepy read, though not too much so, even for this wuss! 🙂
Good comparison to how you felt about The Bishop’s Wife. It really makes a difference if we have personal or cultural experience that can link us to a narrative. I like what you said about how his reaction to perceived infidelity was natural. It seemed contrived to me, but I don’t have that experience. I can see how some might relate to this while others wouldn’t. I think I could have had more of a connection to it if it had been written well, like Angle of Repose is.
Well, Emily, in reality, his reaction was only “natural” to me. I’m sure there are millions of different reactions to that situation experienced by others. It just fit for me. 🙂 On to Koppel’s book in August! We will courageously forge ahead! 🙂