Today 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!
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Happenstance is really two novels, back to back, upside down from each other, about a marriage. Depending upon which way you pick up the book, you get either the husband’s or wife’s point of view first. I just happened to read the husband’s story first.
Jack Bowman is a historian who lives a life of the expected. Every Friday he has lunch with his childhood friend Bernie at the same restaurant, where they discuss this week’s philosophical question. He works at the same institute where he was hired straight out of college more than twenty years ago. He still loves his wife, Brenda, and has always been faithful. He is skeptical of, in 1978, new political and social movements. He has been working on the same book for three years, sort of. He attends periodic parties with neighbors he dislikes.
The events of one week make him begin evaluating his life. First, he finds out that an old flame may be publishing a book on the same topic as the one he has been dilatorily writing. Second, his wife is leaving town for five days to attend a crafts conference. Finally, his friend Bernie arrives on his doorstep after separating from his wife.
Jack wonders if he wants to finish his book. He isn’t really interested in the topic, which was suggested by his boss. Further, he wonders whether his work in his comfortable, stress-free environment serves any purpose.
For her part, Brenda began making quilts several years ago and has begun attracting attention because of them. She tends to be placid and self-deprecating, but before she took up quilting she sometimes found herself angry about her life.
At the conference, she finds friendly people who are interested in conversations about things that interest her. Moreover, because of an embarrassing incident, she befriends a metallurgist attending another conference at the same hotel. Soon, she can tell she may have to decide whether to have an affair.
I couldn’t decide what my reaction was to this book. On the one hand, characters are examining their lives through the lens of mundane events. On the other hand, I feel that the portrait of the marriage was more realistic than usual because of this, showing a couple doing ordinary things. I thought that approach was braver than a depiction of horrid secrets coming out. On the other hand, especially the conversations seemed ordinary and not very interesting. As a side note, I am interested whether reading the book the other way around would make any difference.
What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
What stands out for me about this marriage is that Brenda, open and ready for change, ultimately decides to stick with her old life. Jack, on the other hand, previously so resistant to change, seems to decide that some changes might be good.
As to her role as a wife, Brenda entered marriage with naïvete and not much thought at a time when it was expected. Twenty years later, she isn’t sure she made the right decision, or rather, she thinks maybe she missed something. Her quilt making, however, has given her a sense of purpose and creativity. She doesn’t seem to resent that she must be a wife, mother, and housewife before being a creative person, even though that topic is raised in one of her conference sessions. Still, she is tempted toward change.
It’s interesting to me that in this time of a growing awareness of feminism (this book was published in 1980), Brenda doesn’t seem to be very aware of it or interested in the ideas the movement has spawned.
I am glad, although Jack doesn’t necessarily understand Brenda, that the book didn’t follow the cliché of the husband being unsupportive of his wife’s activities.