Literary Wives: How to Be a Good Wife

Is a good wife somebody who is exact in self-sacrificing and serving her family? Is a bad wife one who is crazy, perhaps while pursuing autonomy?

These are the choices presented in the character of Marta Bjornstad in Emma Chapman’s How to Be a Good Wife (2013). We review this novel as part of the Literary Wives Series, which includes the following bloggers.

Naomi of Consumed by Ink

Kay of What Me Read

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

Ariel of One Little Library

Kate at Kate Rae Davis; Reading Culture, Finding God

We read a novel about wives every two months an answer the following question.

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

As mentioned previously, there are two interpretations to answer this question, possibly more for this particular book. I will focus on the two that are dichotomous and most obvious to me.

  1. A good wife is suppressed and controlled by her husband.
  2. A good wife is not supposed to be crazy.

Marta has been married for 25 years, she has a grown son, and she lives with her husband. She is constantly checking the time and performing according to a book her overbearing mother-in-law gave her when she married: How to Be a Good Wife. The book suggests things like “Never question his authority” (p. 18), “children need order and routine” (p. 13), “you must persevere when cleaning glass” (p. 6), and “Take small mouthfuls of food, like a baby bird, and make sure to chew daintily with your mouth closed” (p. 46). Marta follows these routines and puts her husband first. She is careful not to upset him with her thoughts or feelings and when he seems troubled, she is sure to ask about his.

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However, Marta has recently stopped taking her pills. These pills have been part of her routine since she married Hector. He found her thin and ill after her parents died in a car accident. He took her in, nursed her back to health, and they eventually fell in love and married. This is what Marta has been told. “I am afraid without Hector here to explain, I will start doubting him again” (p. 153). Now that her pills are wearing off, she isn’t sure if she believes anything Hector has told her. “Does he just like me quiet, drugged, agreeing with everything he says?” (p. 158). She begins to see and remember incidents about a girl who was a ballerina, who was locked in a dungeon, and who used to smoke. Marta begins smoking again. She longs to see more of these “hallucinations” and images of the trapped girl and tries to figure out what they mean.

Is she going crazy? Or is she remembering her past, a past that Hector has hidden from her?

This is the central theme of the novel. As readers, we never get a definitive answer to these questions.

She eventually “finds” a dungeon underneath her house, and she realizes that Hector was her kidnapper. He starved her and then pretended to bring her back to health. He has drugged her for years to keep her past fuzzy and to move forward with her as his dutiful wife. Or has he?

Marta believes that he has. She remembers that she is the girl she has been seeing and that she was kidnapped from the city after ballet practice. She remembers that her real name is Elise, and she runs to her son’s house in the city, trying to tell him what she has remembered and discovered.

Nobody believes her. She is institutionalized. From there, she makes a plan and carries it through, eventually ending her torture as a victim of kidnapping by tricking everybody into thinking she is sane and then killing herself. (Sorry to give it away, but this point is key to understanding what a “wife” is expected to be in her context.)

It is tragic and yet demonstrative of the self-sacrifice she has learned as a wife and mother. She spends the better part of a year dutifully improving herself in a facility and pretending that she is being treated, all the while believing that she is Elise, the long-lost victim of a kidnapping. She then attends her son’s wedding under supervision. She gives his wife the book How to Be a Good Wife, with an inscription at the back telling them goodbye. She escapes the wedding and throws herself into the sea. She enacts the sacrifice Hector taught her. She was bothering her family with her memories and her identity. She was bothering the doctors. And since her son Kylan could not find evidence of an Elise being kidnapped on the internet, she did what she did best. She played the role and then sacrificed herself. In some ways, her suicide is the greatest act of autonomy she performs. Yet it is convenient for Hector, who might be a kidnapper and wishes to keep it quiet, and Kylan, who does not believe her because of past instability. It is also another act of self denial and sacrifice that has characterized her entire adult life.

She is a wife and a mother who has no place to go. Ultimately, she must disappear, much as she always has. During a dinner party in which she met Kylan’s fiancée, she thinks, “It seems like without me, everything has continued as normal” (p. 143). Several times she describes herself as invisible, and this only changes when she asserts her will and talks about what she remembers and feels.

What do I think in terms of whether she is crazy or remembering a traumatic past? I don’t know. As I read the novel, I believed she was discovering a hidden past. I believed that she had been kidnapped. However, Marta is an unreliable narrator. She really is unstable, and this becomes evident when she hosts the dinner party to meet Kylan’s fiancée and she acts horribly. She is clingy with Kylan and dismissive of Katya, despite the young woman’s kindness and caring. In Marta’s interactions with other people, we see a side of her that is strange and seemingly crazy. She seems unable to disconnect from her son and capable of great cruelty and irrational behavior.

So the question of whether or not she is crazy or remembering a true past is unanswered for me. I’m curious to hear what the other Literary Wives bloggers say about this.

And if you’ve read this novel, I’d love to hear your take on it as well.

The next book for October is American Housewife by Helen Ellis. We would love to have you read and blog along.

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24 thoughts on “Literary Wives: How to Be a Good Wife

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  1. That’s an interesting take, Emily. I chose to believe her, and I thought her behavior at the dinner was a combination of her old dependency on her son (remember, he was really the only thing of value in her life and the only person who she loved) and the knowledge, looking back, of what she planned to do. I didn’t think she was crazy then. Still, I think we’re supposed to be in some doubt.

    1. Yes, the dinner events were certainly about her being so dependent on her son. I guess her behavior reminded me a little of my own mother’s at social events, and that brought back some trauma for me and some strong feelings about crazy behavior. 😉

  2. “It is tragic and yet demonstrative of the self-sacrifice she has learned as a wife and mother.” – Yes, I completely agree. I also believed that she was uncovering memories that had been suppressed by the drugs for so many years… although I am somewhat suspicious of what Hector’s motive might have been. He really went to all that work to kidnap an 18-year-old, lock her up for two years, and brainwash her just to appease his mother??

    One thing I couldn’t help noticing throughout the book (and forgot to mention in my review) was overtones of Mrs. Dalloway – constantly aware of the time, questioning her own sanity, and pondering the ultimate sacrifice. I’m not sure if that had any deeper meaning, or just coincidence.

    1. Ooh, I love that connection to Mrs. Dalloway. I read from the author in the back of the book that she deliberately used those traits you mentioned as a way of representing post-traumatic stress disorder. I think they also could have been hints or diversions to us as readers as to whether or not she was truly crazy. I’m confused about the motive of Hector as well. I really wanted to know more. I wanted her to uncover the truth and find something in the newspapers about her kidnapping or to find her parents. I believed she was uncovering memories, but when the narrative didn’t give me a tidy bow to wrap on it, I kind of started to doubt her.

  3. Tying the ending to the pattern of self-sacrifice is eye-opening! Yes, totally that. What a profound criticism of the “self sacrifice” we espouse in our culture (and especially our churches) regularly.

  4. I don’t think self-sacrifice is very often a virtue. I didn’t really see that as self-sacrifice, though, so much as finally getting free, the only way she could think of. Not that I think it was a good way, but what were her options? If she could have proven she was kidnapped, she would have had some, but otherwise . . .

    1. I think in religious circles self-sacrifice is “always” a virtue, and I think for women, from a traditional perspective, it is often what we are taught implicitly and explicitly. I really wish she had been able to prove that she had been kidnapped and that she had found a more triumphant way to escape her situation.

  5. This will be my 6th attempt to leave a comment on your posting, Emily! 🙂 Wish me luck!
    I loved your noting that she described herself as “invisible,” and I did take note when she stated the dinner party continued as “normal” without her. That made me feel so sad for her. She really had no options other than “living” or dying. And I agree about the self-sacrifice-I guess that’s what I was trying to say when I spoke of her realization that she was putting Kylan in an impossible situation…her death was the only way she could think to save him all that trauma about his father. But… Well, I would have liked her to be able to advocate for herself more, if it was true, and if it wasn’t, then she definitely needed help, though I believe if Hector had given her some sense of autonomy in her life, she would have been better off. One thing very fortunate about my aunt’s situation was the fact that she was extremely consistent in taking her medication, keeping all therapy and doctor appointments. That is really rare and I was always grateful that she had that ability. A thoughtful review as always, Emily! Now I definitely need to read Mrs. Dalloway!!

    1. Yes, you do need to read Mrs. Dalloway! I was really struck by her invisibility, even when she wasn’t mentioning it. Her husband wanted to solve all of her problems (or her bothersome worries about him or toward him) with pills. He wanted to make her go away. Not to think. In addition, when her mother-in-law showed up, she treated her as invisible as well. I think it is really easy and common for women, even not in such extreme situations involving mental health and/or kidnapping, to feel invisible, for their families to take them for granted, and for their presence to be always seen as object rather than subject. I’ve felt that way myself, and it usually leads to some frank discussions with my husband and children. And those discussions are productive. I think her invisibility in this book is a commentary on the a theme that likely runs in all kinds of marriages, and I think it is an opportunity for us to examine that as well. Thanks for commenting! Sorry it was so hard. 🙂

  6. You’ve made some interesting points about how the ending ties in with everything she’s been taught about how she’s supposed to behave as a mother and wife. I did also wonder if she killed herself to prevent upsetting her son further. Although I’m not sure if she accomplishes this by suicide, especially on his wedding day. Eek.
    I also like the questions you pose at the beginning of your review.
    And, like you, I was bothered by not finding out more about what really happened. I think I made it clear in my own review – I want to know! 🙂

    1. I want to know too. Maybe somebody will write some fan fiction sequel that will elaborate on it. Maybe the detectives who investigate her disappearance/suicide look into the story, find her parents, and then the tragedy is even deeper given that she never got to go home. And yes, to do that on her son’s wedding day was certainly symbolic of her wish to avoid upsetting him and his life, but also a terrible day to choose.

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