Literary Wives: A Circle of Wives

A Circle of Wives (2014) by Alice LaPlante has two critiques from me: 1) it is more of a murder mystery than it is a book about the marriage relationship, and 2) it is more about the husband than it is about the wive(s).


This novel is this month’s pick for the Literary Wives Series. Please visit the other blogs participating and see what the bloggers have to say about their experiences in reading it.

Naomi of Consumed by Ink

Kay of What Me Read

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

Ariel of One Little Library

This is an ongoing series in which we read a book that centers on wives every two months and then post our thoughts on the following question.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

A Circle of Wives was interesting and I enjoyed reading it. It is about Dr. John Taylor, a benevolent plastic surgeon for disfigured children, who dies alone in a hotel room. We soon learn that he is married to three different women—Deborah, MJ, and Helen—and that only his first and most austere wife Deborah knows about the arrangements. She made it possible, as long as she got to keep his name and his money.

A fourth woman involved in the story is Samantha, the detective investigating his strange death, which is eventually ruled a murder. A fifth woman emerges about halfway through the book, but we never get to read a chapter from her perspective as we do with the other women. She is Claire, and she is supposedly Dr. Taylor’s new fiancée whom he planned to leave all of the other wives for.

While the chapters jump around from the perspectives of these women, and we get to hear their inner voices, most of what we learn is about John. We also learn about the women’s whereabouts during his murder or their thoughts about him. But there are few instances in the book in which we learn much about these wives and their actual experiences and feelings. Sure, we know that MJ likes to garden and that she’s a “hippie” who has spent years keeping her younger brother out of trouble, that Deborah keeps a neat façade and a neater home, and that Helen is also a doctor who treats pediatric cancer patients. However, we learn most about how they feel, move, or act in relation to John, before and after his death.

Strikingly, the most complicated moment of Helen’s life is deciding whether or not to keep the baby she is carrying. John did not want more children, and she accidentally became pregnant. Once he dies, she can decide to keep the child. Her life and her decisions are dictated by John, even in his death. He must die for her to make a decision that suits her.

I also noticed that the book wasn’t too concerned with relationships, except for maybe the one between the detective Samantha and her boyfriend, Peter. The novel is mostly about solving the murder, which Samantha eventually does, despite a lack of evidence and an already-closed case. She extracts a confession from the real killer in the end, and we never know if it will be prosecuted. Yet her relationship with Peter is what suffers. She is determined to sovle the crime in this quiet Palo Alto, California, community. She works night and day to uncover evidence, interview witnesses, and check alibis. Yet, when it is all said and done, she comes home to a house that has been cleared of her boyfriend’s things. He has left her for being too involved in her work and for not paying enough attention to him.

If the situation were reversed, as it often is, this would not be the likely outcome. Women are expected to care for their men and their professions, as we see the “circle” of women doing for John. They exist to fill his needs; even his first wife did so to the extreme as she suggested he have other “marriage” relationships. The women’s self-described relationships with him confirm that they saw themselves as important to him, and from Samantha’s perspective, they all fill some sort of need for John that was necessary. Yet Samantha cannot get the same support in her own relationship.

What DOES this novel say about wives? Nothing good.

Our next book, to be discussed on April 4, is How To Be A Good Wife by Emma Chapman. Read along with us!

18 thoughts on “Literary Wives: A Circle of Wives

Add yours

  1. Great last paragraph, Emily. I hadn’t thought to pull it all together like that and compare them all to Samantha’s relationship .I think I left Samantha out of it altogether, because her relationship seemed so vague and in the background compared to the rest of the novel. It seemed to me that Sam and Peter were doomed from the beginning – she just seemed so ‘meh’ about their relationship. I do think her involvement in the case, and lack of attention she was giving Peter, did speed things up though. So true that most women would have held on longer, or at least would have been expected to.

    I definitely agree that this book is more about John than his wives, and more a mystery than a study of relationships. I would love to have heard things from John’s perspective. And, what was it about Claire that had him planning to end all his other marriages?

    1. Yeah, that part with Claire was vague and left me wondering why John had suddenly become this other guy. As to Samantha, I started getting the feeling the author wanted us to make the connection when she was writing about how Samantha saw herself as another of his “wives” in the circle because she spent so much time on the whole thing.

  2. That’s interesting that you two thought the book was more about John, because I thought that John was a mystery. It’s true that we don’t learn much about the women that isn’t on the surface, but I found John inexplicable. I could understand that he might want to leave Deborah, and I could also understand that he would be weak enough not to be able to make a complete break if she wouldn’t allow it. I could also understand that MJ would not remain a very satisfying partner to him. But why dump Helen for Claire (since you mentioned Claire), a conniving person who seemed to be getting him right back to relationship like the one he had with Deborah? I thought the character of John was the biggest unanswered mystery in the book.

    1. Even though we don’t know much about him, I still think the book is more about John and his effect on all these women than about the women themselves. Which left me feeling so frustrated that I don’t know why he did the things he did (especially when we find out about Claire). Like you said in your review, how the women feel about being wives doesn’t go very deep. I couldn’t really tell if their experiences were really about being a wife, or more about different personality types each reacting differently to John’s character. But maybe we could say that about any wife?

      1. Maybe we could. That is a good point. Also, having started on this path, it just seemed as if, as soon as he wasn’t getting something he needed, he just went after another wife. When perhaps something was lacking in him that a wife couldn’t help with. Well, of course something was lacking in him.

        1. That’s the part that reminded me of My Father’s Wives. It was like he was searching for something he couldn’t find, or that he wanted it all, which doesn’t exist.

    2. Good point! I guess we didn’t get an in depth look at any of the characters really, except maybe Samantha? I wish it had been a little more detailed and longer so we could feel like we knew more about everybody.

  3. That you are discussing “Johns women” and the relationship in between is so exciting to follow. The book is for sure captivating and could not stand if John is not the link.

  4. I adore your final thought! 🙂 Perhaps it had nothing good to say about being a ‘wife,’ and yet, what would have made them each better in that role? With no knowledge of the other women, how could they be different? This begged the question: Should we “research” potential partners? Run a background check, etc.? I don’t know… I like Naomi’s comparison with My Father’s Wives. I hadn’t caught that but John certainly is much like the father in that they both went to a different woman, supposedly seeking something to complete themselves, though John didn’t do this in a legally sequential way! I also agree with Kay that John is another ‘mystery’ in this story. We really have no idea what prompts him to seek other women, except for the stereotypical ‘leave your wife once your children are out of the house’/’empty nest’ syndrome! Though I could see how each (perhaps especially Claire with their shared desire to establish a ‘free’ clinic) may have fulfilled a part of his desires… Nice review and discussion!! This one definitely provided a wealth of material for discussion!

    1. Thanks, Lynn! Yes, this one has much to discuss, even though I felt as if the author could have made the book a little denser/longer to fill in some of the details. I guess that lack of detail is what gives us something to think and talk about.

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