- What: The Wife
- Who: Meg Wolitzer
- Pages: 219, soft cover
- Genre: Contemporary fiction
- Published: 2003
- The lit: of 5 flames
You’d think it would be hard to find humor in a 50-year relationship coming to a close. Meg Wolitzer makes it look easy though. As someone who is known for having little emotion, I fully appreciate that skill and enjoy seeing it at work. The ability to laugh at a divorce and the messed-up flaws of a relationship that’s become way too comfortable is not only refreshing, but it’s a necessary change in literature. That’s why you need to read The Wife.
Giggles aside, Wolitzer’s 2003 novel further demonstrates an interesting conundrum and one that so many couples are familiar with: Leaving is never easy when being together is all you’ve ever known. She flawlessly presents this internal struggle in a witty drama, which details the unpleasant feelings that can develop after being with someone for half of a century. It’s the perfect combination of humor and reality, and literature could certainly use more of it.
*PSA: No disrespect to Glenn Close because I have not seen the 2017 movie adaptation of The Wife, but do not skip the book for the movie. Writing like this needs to be experienced on its own, away from the dramatics and artistry of the silver screen.*
“You can do it, we wives said, you can do it, and when they actually did do it, we were as happy as mothers whose babies have taken a first, shaky step, letting go of the furniture forever.” The Wife
The Wife starts high above the ground while married couple Joe and Joan Castleman are flying to Norway so he can receive the coveted Helsinki Prize for literature. Joe started writing novels not long after meeting Joan. As his literary muse, Joan often resents Joe for his success when she knows in her heart her talent far exceeds his. It’s these thoughts, while aboard the Norway-bound flight, that inspire Joan to officially leave her husband. The Helsinki Prize is the final straw.
After this revelation, we get flashbacks of Joe and Joan’s partnership (a word exploding with meaning as the novel progresses) — the controversial beginning of a relationship between a professor and an awe-struck student, the increasing ego and unfaithfulness of Joe, the struggles with their children, and Joan’s pining for freedom. Wolitzer mixes the history with the present to help navigate Joan’s changing emotions and character throughout the years.
“They weren’t afraid to have alter egos; they weren’t afraid to have egos. They owned the world, remember, and everything in it.” Joan about male authors in The Wife
I admit it took a minute for me to figure out why Joan despised her husband and marriage so much, and I at first attributed this to either a lack of clear detail from Wolitzer — despite some unique descriptions — or my own lack of understanding. Then it dawned on me that perhaps this slow unraveling was intentional and a reflection of Joan coming to terms with her feelings over time. There was never a defining moment; it was a gradual dislike.
Until the climax when I realized just how big of an ass he really was. Then there was no question about it.
The Wife is intriguing for many reasons but especially because it presents no sign of a fairy tale. Even while Joe and Joan are falling in love in the 1950s, Wolitzer illustrates a flawed relationship combined with a clear imbalance of power that doesn’t sit well with the main character. At the beginning, their budding relationship is forbidden, scandalous, and delicious, which can often feel intriguing in a novel. However, Wolitzer manages to make things feel slightly off kilter, foreshadowing their problematic future.
“She didn’t want to touch any part of him, and she didn’t want him wrapped around her, marinating her in his smell, raising a topography of beard-burn on her cheeks.” Joan describing Joe’s ex-wife in The Wife
Sure, the mismatch and dislike can provoke some laughs, but shouldn’t a crumbling family lead to at least some slight tugging of the heart-strings? Not for Wolitzer who steers clear of sentiment or sympathy. This is the defining characteristic of The Wife, and Claire Dederer from the New York Times felt the same way in 2003:
“Rage might be the signature emotion of the powerless, but in Wolitzer’s hands, rage is also very funny.”
This statement nails what it’s like to experience The Wife. Wolitzer’s humor has you rooting for divorce — which contrasts sharply with most literature focused on relationships — while your rage grows simultaneously with Joan’s.
The laughs are imbued by Wolitzer’s unique and powerful descriptions that every writer wishes they possessed. Her characteristics paint a seamless portrait.
“Joe was the writer version, a short, wound-up, slack-bellied novelist who almost never slept, who loved to consume runny cheeses and whiskey and wine, all of which he used as a vessel to carry the pills that kept his blood lipids from congealing like yesterday’s pan drippings.” The Wife
Now that is a characterization.
Even with all the rage (trust me, I was hating Joe too about one-quarter of the way through), Wolitzer makes you realize Joan can’t easily make the decision to leave Joe. Divorce bears complex emotions no matter the circumstance. Yes, she’s thought about leaving him for years, but there was a spark and love there at point. Leaving isn’t as simple as 2+2.
Navigating such complexities and conveying them to readers is a sure sign of talent and an enjoyable read. Real life is never straightforward, and it’s nice to not always read about the boy and the girl and the happily ever after.
Especially when it makes you cackle on a 6 a.m. flight, which is exactly what The Wife did to me.
“He left this all-female revue and stepped onto the creaking train that sweeps people from their lesser boroughs into the thrilling chaos of the only borough that really counts: Staten Island.
Just a joke.
Manhattan…” The Wife