Literary Wives: Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife

I began this novel with a sigh. After reading the first few pages, I thought, “Not another novel written from a female perspective that is all about how important her husband is.” I wanted to read something about an actual wife, not a wife just telling us about her husband. Well, it turned out that the book had just that in store for me.

The Wife (2003) by Meg Wolitzer is the focus of the Literary Wives Series this month.

Please see more of the Literary Wives discussion at the following blogs.

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

The reason this book ended up being in my good graces is because of the twist at the end. It was a twist I saw coming, but essentially we learn that Joan, the wife of this novel, was literally the woman behind the successful man. What I mean is this: Joe Castelman’s success is due to her actual writing and her hands-on work in his literary career, and I would argue that he was a public face to her career as a writer. While he was the one receiving accolades (the book surrounds the event of  receiving a huge literary prize), she was the one who did the actual work. (And the similarity in their names, Joan and Joe, is not a coincidence.)

My disappointment came when Joan would not admit it. Joe’s biographer suggested that he knew the truth. He asked her about it. She was going to tell him just before her husband has a heart attack. And then she backtracks. She self sacrifices and tells the biographer that she did no such work. Joan allows herself to once again be subsumed in her husband’s larger personality.

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And that is what this book says about being a wife. All along, we readers suspect that she is more talented and more involved than she lets on. We wonder if their own son suspects the truth. Once we reach that truth, she denies it. She keeps it a secret. She remains second fiddle.

This message bothered me, but it also rings true. I realized that the ending of the book is authentic because of her reaction, her willingness to keep the secret. I wanted her to break free and speak out. But she didn’t. She is THE WIFE. It is her role, and she plays it to the end.

However, her decision to keep the secret is a little surprising. While traveling to receive the award, Joan decides that she is going to divorce Joe. She realizes that they are done, and she imagines his award limelight as intolerable. “Soon he would gloat and preen and discuss his triumph nonstop, inflated with ecstasy and self-importance” (p. 37). There is some jealousy of his acceptance of the situation, of his public willingness to play the part of great author. It seems that at times she wants some of the credit, or she at least wants him to not be so puffed up about his success. Yet she repeatedly tells him not to thank her publicly. She finds it humiliating.

Yet Joan learned early on in their relationship—she is his second wife, born of an affair they had as teacher and student—that women aren’t taken seriously in the literary world. As she followed aspiring Joe to readings and events, she hears and sees the truth of literary culture. One aspiring female author warns her that men control reviews, publishing houses, papers, and magazines. They get to decide “who gets put up on a pedestal for the rest of their lives” (p. 52). Maybe her façade of Joe is the best hope she has for literary success? Maybe that’s what she decided.

She puts up with his infidelity. He has many lovers over the years. And Joan knows it. At first I was puzzled by her tolerance of it, and then I realized what was really going on, that Joan was not his muse but his actual writer. The other women wrote “bad fiction” and they could not give him what Joan could. That seemed to be the reason for her confidence in the situations and her reason for staying in the marriage. They needed each other to continue to pull off the literary success.

Some of the other interesting tidbits about wives from the book ring true as well. Joe once said he felt sorry for women, “who only got husbands” (p. 32). His reasoning was that wives are caring and do so much, but husbands only give advice and try to apply logical force to every situation. I have felt this way at times. I’ve said, jokingly and not-so-jokingly, “I wish I had a wife!” When Joan meets the president of Finland’s wife, she thinks she hears her say “My life … is so very unhappy” (p. 181).

It seems to be a theme for the women who are wives in this novel: unhappiness. I hope that isn’t necessarily true for everybody who is a wife.

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