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If there is such at thing as a male equivalent for chick lit, My Father’s Wives fits in the genre. Take a similar focus on romance and family, keep the background of wealth and focus on expensive brand names, replace shopping with basketball and witty dialogue with earnestness. Mix in a bunch of underdeveloped characters that readers don’t care about. Make it light as a feather despite themes that could be heavy and also make it thoroughly predictable. There you have it. This genre can even have a similarly rhyming name, but it would be rude to say it.
Jonathan Sweetwater has led a privileged existence. He is the son of a U.S. senator. He has a job as a banker that he enjoys, and he has been taken under the wing of the CEO because of a mutual love of basketball. He is happily married with two kids that he loves.
One day before he is due to leave for a business trip, he decides to come home early from work and sees what he thinks is evidence that his wife Claire is having an affair. I’m not giving away anything here. This happens almost at the beginning of the book.
Instead of simply walking into the room or, failing that, asking his wife about what he saw, Jonathan hires a private detective. This is what movie reviewers call the lame-brained plot, the plot that continues when the problem could be cleared up with a few sentences. If he had behaved at all rationally, there would be no story, however. By the way, this detective’s shenaningans, supposedly an effort to protect his client’s anonymity, are ridiculous.
Then for some reason, Jonathan decides he really needs to find out about his father, from whom he and his mother have been estranged since he was 9. I would call this the McGuffin if it had any other purpose than making the book a little longer. To do this, he tracks down all six of his father’s wives, doing so while pretending to be on business trips.
I felt the premise behind this novel, although not unlikely, didn’t really relate well to its trigger. That is, why would thinking his wife was having an affair make him run out to find out about his father? The people in the novel are very thinly characterized, even Jonathan. We know, for example, that he’s supposed to be destroyed by his discovery, but we don’t feel it. In any case, I think we all know that there will be some explanation for Claire’s apparent infidelity.
I would also like to mention the choices in this novel and the lack of a sense that some of the choices are not ethical or moral. Jonathan sees nothing wrong with hunting up his father’s wives while he’s pretending to work. His boss behaves more like a mafia don than a CEO, and if he was really spending his nights with cocaine-sniffing models, he wouldn’t take an employee along. In any case, that relationship is inexplicable and unlikely. Claire does one questionable thing that is unexplained, and I cannot say more about it.
What does the book say about wives or the experience of being a wife? In what way does the woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?
Although there are a lot of wives in this book, I don’t think we learn much about them. We don’t even see that much of Claire. Her role seems to be very conventional—to be a good suburban wife and mother. She is warm and someone Jonathan feels comfortable with.
Of Percy Sweetwater’s six wives, we learn that he left each one for not being perfect. Jonathan’s mother is intelligent, educated, and cultured, but she doesn’t worship Percy, so he leaves her for Christine, who does. But he soon tires of Christine for her lack of the qualities he admires in his first wife. Next, he marries Elizabeth, a doctor, for her intelligence. He continues on, always marrying his current wife’s opposite. But we barely learn anything about them except their jobs. I don’t think we can gain much of a coherent view from this novel of how the author views wives. Clearly Percy views a wife as someone who has to meet all his needs for admiration, intelligence, charm, and beauty, but just as clearly, that is not Jonathan’s view of a wife. What is his view? That’s not clear. Maybe a companion.