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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Day 1081: Days of Awe

Cover for Days of AweIsabel is struggling. It is almost a year since the death of her beloved friend, Josie. Her husband, Chris, has moved out, and her 12-year-old daughter, Hannah, blames her for it. She has become alienated from her childhood friend, Mark, who was Josie’s husband, because of his romantic choice.

This novel is a character study more than anything else, of Josie and of Isabel, as Isabel revisits memories and tries to deal with the sadness in her life. As Isabel grows to understand that she was missing cues from Josie, she slowly learns to handle Josie’s death.

I enjoyed this novel. It is well written, with funny dialogue. Both Isabel and Josie express themselves with imagination and humor. We learn to care for Isabel, with all of her foibles.

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Day 1041: Enon

Cover for EnonEnon is the second novel by Paul Harding and it follows the story of the same family as in his first novel, Tinkers. That novel was about George Crosby and his memories of his epileptic father. Enon is about George’s grandson, Charlie Crosby, and his life in the village of Enon.

At the beginning of Enon, Charlie’s beloved 13-year-old daughter Kate is killed when her bicycle is hit by a car. Soon after, without much attempt to work anything out, Charlie’s wife Susan returns to her parents’ home and he never hears from her again. Charlie begins a downward spiral into grief, anger, and an addiction to pain killers.

In some respects, Enon is a little more accessible than Tinkers. It is characterized by the same beautiful prose, especially in the descriptions of nature. Further, the setting in the old New England village with its sense of history is fully imagined.

Yet, I wasn’t so interested in watching Charlie fall apart, nor did I enjoy his hallucinogenic dreams about Kate, where she turns to obsidian, for example. I’m starting to realize I don’t enjoy reading about dreams in fiction.

I was also nonplussed by Charlie’s relationship to Susan. No wonder their marriage fell apart. Although they seem to be a happy family at the beginning of the novel, Susan is always somewhere folding clothes while Charlie and Kate go off on adventures. I was surprised when she left just a few days after Kate’s death, but it became clear she wasn’t important to her own family.

So, if this subject matter attracts you, you might enjoy this book more than I did.

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Day 988: H Is for Hawk

Cover for H Is for HawkBest Book of the Week!
I never gave too much thought to what is involved in falconry until I read H Is for Hawk, a memoir by Helen Macdonald, English naturalist, writer, and Affiliated Research Scholar at Cambridge University. But Macdonald’s memoir covers more ground than just that. It is also an examination of what is revealed about the writer T. H. White in his nonfiction book Goshawk and a recollection and examination of Macdonald’s grief over the death of her father.

As such, H Is for Hawk has many layers. It is a literary work, both in its examination of White’s book and in its eloquent writing style. It is an unflinching memoir. It is also deep psychologically in its examination of the forces that drove White and that drive Macdonald. Finally, it is a journal of falconry.

I was deeply interested in the story of Helen and her hawk Mabel. I was particularly surprised by some details about the personality of the hawk. This book contains some beautiful, almost poetic descriptions of the natural world. It is certainly worth reading. Highly recommended.

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Day 668: The Sea

Cover for The SeaIn this contemplative novel, recently widowed Max Morden returns to the small Irish seaside resort where his family used to live when he was a boy. It was there he met and became fascinated by the Grace family, much above his own in social strata.

Max’s memories are assisted by his residence as a boarder at The Cedars, the house where the Graces stayed that summer. The Cedars has become a boarding house that is now managed by Miss Vavasour.

The young Max became the companion of the Grace’s oddly feral twins, Chloe and Myles. They are two very unpleasant children who torment their teenage nanny Rose. At first infatuated with the voluptuous Mrs. Grace, Max eventually turns his attentions to the spiky Chloe.

Through his memories of the extraordinary events of that summer and his feelings about his wife’s death, Max eventually gains some self-knowledge. Looking back, he also gains some understanding of the dynamics between people that he did not grasp as a child.

The Sea is stylistically exquisite, with its sussurating and rhythmic prose a striking meditation on death, grief, and memory. Although I guessed one of its revelations much earlier than intended, that did not take away from the power of the prose.

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Day 650: Nora Webster

Cover for Nora WebsterIt took me awhile to place Nora Webster in time. Irish readers may be quicker to identify its setting from some events, but I am not familiar enough with recent Irish history. Finally, I identified the novel as set in the late 60’s and early 70’s. It wasn’t long after gaining that knowledge that I began to wonder how autobiographical the novel is. Since then, I have read that it is indeed autobiographical, as details about Nora’s husband match those of Toíbín’s father.

Nora Webster is in her 40’s a recent widow. She is finding it difficult. Not only does she miss her husband Maurice, but she finds the attention paid to her as a widow painful. She feels comfortable only with a few people, those who stayed with her and Maurice during his painful death.

Making things more difficult is the fact that she is left with little money. One of the first things she is forced to do is sell the holiday cottage where the family stayed every summer. She finds it hard to return there, especially under those circumstances.

She also has her children to worry about, particularly her two young sons. Donal has begun stammering since his father’s death, and when her Aunt Josie comes to call, it is immediately clear to Nora that all did not go well when the boys stayed with Josie while their father was dying.

Soon Nora is forced to return to her old job at Gibney’s, where she has not worked since she married 20 years before. She must report to Mrs. Kavanaugh, a woman she disliked when they were girls at work there together and who bullies the office staff.

There are no big events in this novel, which is more of a character study. It is about grief and the act of making a new life after a major event.

Nora is an interesting character. She doesn’t say much of what she thinks, so is sometimes misunderstood. She does not listen to other people’s opinions of who she should like or what she should do. She is intensely private and does not discuss things with her family, even things that she should perhaps discuss. She is also fiercely protective of her family.

This is a quiet, contemplative book and is not for those who read only for plot.

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Day 533: The Descendants

Cover for The DescendantsIf you have seen the movie The Descendants, the book will not provide you with very many surprises. But that is looking at things the wrong way around. Perhaps the novel provides a stronger sense of betrayal and even more sympathy with the characters.

He may live in balmy Hawaii, but Matt King is struggling. His wife Joanie is in a coma after a boat-racing accident. He has been the type of father who is always working; now he is becoming conscious of his deficiencies as a parent. He finds his ten-year-old daughter Scottie harming herself. Then he learns that the reason his wife sent his teenage daughter Alex away to boarding school was because she discovered drugs in her room.

Added to all this turmoil is a decision he must soon make about his family’s property. A trust is being wound up and prime real estate could be sold. Some cousins want the most money while others favor a local developer. With the majority vote, Matt has the power to decide what the family will do with the land.

After Matt picks up Alex from boarding school, she explains a big blowup she had with her mother over Christmas. Alex had discovered Joanie was having an affair.

Joanie’s doctors decide that she is brain dead, so Matt begins gathering her friends and family to say goodbye. Learning from friends that Joanie had planned to leave him for her lover, Matt decides he should notify him too.

It is in trying to identify and contact this man that Matt discovers Joanie’s affair was a much bigger betrayal than he thought. He is also brought to consider what he owes to his Hawaiian ancestors, from whom his family inherited their property.

Although narrated in a light style that is sometimes funny, The Descendants deals with such issues as grief, anger, death, and infidelity. It is surprisingly affecting, and you feel you know and like Matt, his daughters, and their friend Sid. Most of the characters are well-meaning people who are trying to do the right thing. I enjoyed this novel.