Day 1197: Literary Wives! The Headmaster’s Wife

Cover for The Headmaster's WifeToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Eva of Paperback Princess
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink
TJ of My Book Strings

My Review

In trying to rate The Headmaster’s Wife, I again became frustrated with Goodreads’ inflexible five-star system. The novel was more ambitious and better written than many run-of-the-mill novels I’ve given three stars to, but it wasn’t good enough to get four stars, which I give to books I like a lot but don’t think are wonderful. There was just something lacking in it, and 3 1/2 stars would have been perfect.

Arthur Winthrop, the headmaster of a private prep school,  is found wandering naked in the park. He tells the police his story about having an affair with a student forty years younger than him, an event ending in a crime.

But halfway through the book, we find it is not about what we think it is. Arthur turns out to be an unreliable narrator. At this point, the focus changes to Betsy, the girl in the headmaster’s story, sort of. There’s not much more about the plot that I can say without major spoilers.

The prep school world is one that I’m not familiar with, but everything about this novel could have taken place in the 1950’s instead of the current times. I found the world of the book scarily insulated from the events of the real world.

Overall, I found this novel unsatisfying. The first half of it I found distasteful, especially in these Me Too days. But the novel, as I said before, isn’t really about what it seems. The second narrative is unsatisfying because we only actually see Betsy in her relationship to the males in her life—her boyfriends, her son, her lovers. It’s as if she has no actual life. Which, of course, leads us into our Literary Wives discussion.

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

First, I didn’t believe in Betsy as a character except in Arthur’s narrative. In her own section, we have no sense of her day-to-day life. She doesn’t seem to exist. Maybe that was the intention of the author, but maybe he is just really bad at depicting women. While Arthur shuffles papers and attends board meetings, she does literally nothing except have one conversation with an acquaintance.

At the beginning of Arthur and Betsy’s relationship, when Arthur sees she is cooling off, he plays a nasty trick to get rid of a rival. Betsy is fully aware of it. Yet, we are to believe that she went ahead and married Arthur, presumably to have a place at Lancaster forever. I didn’t believe it.

Then, we see Betsy, as I mentioned before, only in relationship to the males in her life and mostly in reference to sex. That is, when she looks back at her own life, it’s one sex scene after another, except for her memories of her son, and even those are somewhat eroticized. Even her desire to become good at tennis involves an affair with her tennis instructor. All I can say is, guess what guys? Sex isn’t the only thing women think about.

The central theme of the novel is supposed to be about grief, but characters in this novel don’t deal with their grief or even really face it. I feel that Greene meant for this novel to be meaningful, but it doesn’t really make it.

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9 thoughts on “Day 1197: Literary Wives! The Headmaster’s Wife

  1. Naomi April 2, 2018 / 10:04 am

    From what I’ve seen so far, we’re all in agreement that we find the first part of the book a real turn-off. And then I couldn’t shake it for the rest of the book.
    I agree that there’s not much there to go on with Elizabeth’s character, and like you, didn’t find her “love” for Arthur believable after what he had done.

    • whatmeread April 2, 2018 / 10:05 am

      No, not at all. I think what she loved was the idea of living at the school. And the school seemed like something from the 50’s.

  2. TJ @ MyBookStrings April 2, 2018 / 12:39 pm

    Haha, indeed, women think about more than sex every now and then. This was actually a book that made it hard for me to forget that it was written by a man. Usually, I don’t pay attention to that, but here, I kept wondering if a woman could have written this book. I think the focus might have been a little different then.

    • whatmeread April 2, 2018 / 4:50 pm

      I don’t think a woman would have written the same book. At least if a woman had written it, we might have some clue why they even got married. I don’t buy the gratitude part after what he did.

  3. Lynn Gerrard April 3, 2018 / 5:26 am

    I didn’t have as much trouble buying the fact that Betsy married Arthur. She was easily manipulated. I love your comment about the ’50s. I hadn’t thought of it in that way, but you are correct. I just assumed this was part and parcel of a boarding school setting–structure and routine! I also failed to notice that so much of Elizabeth’s narrative dealt with sex, since I felt most of Arthur’s narrative was also about sex. I do believe men dwell on sex much of the time and agree this probably would have been much different from a female author. New perspectives and observations for me! Thanks for that, Kay!

    • whatmeread April 3, 2018 / 8:51 am

      Thanks! I didn’t see her as easily manipulated, though. Not sure what you’re thinking about.

  4. The Paperback Princess April 3, 2018 / 11:20 am

    Yes to every single bit of this. You’re totally right that Betsy barely exists in her own section, that she has one active conversation with another person. This book barely even passes the Bechdel Test. I confess that I barely noticed that, enraged as I was by the first part of the book. I obviously never got over that. I also found the sexualization of Betsy to be super over the top and gross. I think you hit the nail on the head – Greene is probably just crap at depicting women. If you think of girls and women only in relation to you and other men, then how on earth are you going to be able to write convincing ones?

    Maybe it’s unfair to put all of that on Greene based on his writing. But he says himself that this is most honest work. I think it makes sense that he’s put a lot of himself in the book which…is offputting.

    • whatmeread April 3, 2018 / 4:56 pm

      OK, I have to look up the Bechdel Test.

    • whatmeread April 3, 2018 / 4:57 pm

      Oh my god, I just looked it up! Ha ha ha!

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