Review 1402: Literary Wives! Happenstance

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!

Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

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.

Literary Wives logoAs 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.

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Review 1380: Literary Wives! Ties

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!

We are sorry that Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J. has left our group because of her many commitments. We’re going to miss her!

Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

Ties is a very short novel divided into three parts. It is about a marriage, but moreso, it is about how a period of infidelity in that marriage affects everyone in this small family. Part I consists of letters written by the wife, Vanda, after her husband leaves her. Part II is narrated by the husband 40 years after they reconcile. Part III is from the point of view of their two children.

Initially, I was sympathetic to Vanda. After all, her husband leaves her with almost no warning and then neglects her and her children for several years, refusing to discuss their situation and too busy being happy with his girlfriend. His explanations for the affair are laden with sophism. Where did this idea come from, repeated twice, that it’s bad to resist impulses? It’s the 70’s, but come on. However, Vanda’s tone in the letters is too insistent, too strident.

An old man, Aldo is forced to revisit this period in their lives after a break-in. Cleaning up, he finds Vanda’s letters and reads them again. He sees his old affair with Lidia as a bid for freedom that was defeated out of guilt. After he and his wife reunited, she used his unhappiness to beat him and make him submissive. Worse, from the children’s point of view, she removed his role of father from the family.

This book was obviously written by a man.

Throughout the book are themes of boxes or being boxed in versus freedom and themes of cheating or being cheated.

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

We understand that Vanda and Aldo were happy and content for some years, although for a few years before the breakup, they were less so. But in this book we only see Vanda as a shrew. Of course, there is reason for her to be unhappy when her husband leaves her and the children with nothing and then avoids them for years. Still, she carries her reactions to an extreme, especially after they reunite.

For his part, Aldo seems to see her and their children as a trap. Interesting, how some men seem to forget they actually participated in having children. Once he has left them, he prefers to think only of Lidia. Later in life, he’s been downtrodden for so long, yet he sees Lidia once a year and secretly keeps photos of her in a box.

Jhumpa Lahiri, in her introduction, says the novel is about creating and destroying. To me, it is just about destroying. Aldo was happy with Lidia but didn’t have the courage to stay with her. At the same time, he destroyed what seemed to be a happy marriage with Vanda in the worst possible way, by deserting his family. When he comes back out of guilt, the two of them create an even worse mess.

 

Review 1358: Literary Wives! A Separation

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!

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

The unnamed narrator of A Separation receives a call from her mother-in-law, Isabella. Isabella has been trying to contact her son Christopher, the narrator’s husband, and demands to know where he is. What Isabella doesn’t know is that the narrator has been separated from Christopher for six months because of his infidelities. She has promised him to tell no one, which has become awkward because for three months she has been living with another man, Yvan.

Isabella can’t believe the narrator doesn’t know where Christopher is. His mother has traced him to a hotel in rural southern Greece and demands that the narrator go there to find out what is going on. For some reason, Isabella is alarmed.

The narrator makes some inexplicable decisions during this novel, almost as though she is obeying instinct rather than thinking. The first one is in not telling Isabella that she and Christopher are separated. The second is in actually doing what Isabella asks.

When she arrives at the hotel, she finds that Christopher is indeed staying there, researching a book on death rituals. However, he has been away for a few days. The narrator decides to wait for his return. Soon, something happens that forces her to re-evaluate her relationship with Christopher.

This novel is a carefully observed work about the complexities of marriage, love, betrayal, and loss. As the narrator, with her secret, is forced more and more back into the role of wife, she uncovers feelings about her husband that she didn’t know she had. Although a fairly simple story plotwise, the novel delves into the layers beneath the facades of marriage. This is a much more intelligent, sophisticated look at marriage than we have yet read in this club.

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

This novel is one of the most complex and true-to-life that we have read for this club, while not really looking at what the marriage was like while the couple were still together. Even though the narrator considers her marriage over, and in fact, goes to Greece planning to ask for a divorce, she finds that the bonds of marriage affect her more strongly than she would have guessed. She finds herself forced back into the role of wife, for example, experiencing the dichotomy of having to make decisions she doesn’t feel she has the right to. The situation forces her to re-evaluate her relation to Christopher and his family. She is bound in ways she didn’t expect.

Literary Wives logoEven though Christopher was the one who strayed and her relationship with Yvan didn’t begin until after they separated., she feels she has betrayed him in some way through that relationship.

I wonder about Kitamura’s decision to make the narrator the only unnamed character in the novel. I have only seen this device used a couple of times, and I can only put a name to one of them now, Daphne du Maurier’s shy, self-effacing narrator in Rebecca. Surely the reason that Kitamura used this device is not the same. Of course, the novel is narrated in first person, and we don’t think of ourselves by our names. Still, no one calls her by her name, either. Perhaps Kitamura uses the device because in some ways the narrator seems to be functioning blindly and is at times an unreliable narrator because she is unaware of her own motivation. I wonder if anyone else has an insight into this.

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Review 1333: Literary Wives! Wait for Me, Jack

Cover for Wait for Me, JackToday 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!

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

Wait for Me, Jack is the story of a marriage, told backwards. I remember this technique being used for the movie Betrayal, giving the final scenes of the enraptured beginning to an affair a certain poignancy. That’s not really the effect of this novel, however.

The novel begins with a few scenes before the death of 80-something Jack. His wife Milly can hardly walk, increasingly more debilitated since her injury in a car accident in her 40’s. Jack has had a couple of heart attacks. Both have been suffering from the indignities of old age.

The novel works its way backwards, showing them at two- or three-year intervals, until they meet at work in their 20’s in 1950. This backwards approach may have worked better if it was not so regular, if we saw them at less frequent but more significant times of their lives. Instead, it visits them at purposefully mundane times—not when they split up but when they are separated, not when their son dies but before and after.

A more significant issue, though, is that their problems are trite and not very interesting. Jack is a philanderer. Milly is dreamy and a  neglectful housewife. Their personalities are ill-defined. Sure, we see their thoughts over a period, but we still don’t have much of a sense of them as people. I started out mildly interested in them but eventually bored, especially when I found that the last four or five pages echo the first four or five almost verbatim. Really? Why not end with their first sight of one another? Wouldn’t that have been more poignant?

And by the way, what did they see in one another? We’re told that Jack first thinks he’s meeting a classier lady than Milly proves to be. He has upward ambitions. But he must find out that is not so fairly early on. In any case, their reasons for staying together are not clear. I disliked Jack and found Milly to be silly, and the other characters are just ciphers, there for the plot to continue.

I have commented on this before for other novels, but I also disliked Jones’s technique of having her characters think words  like “Gee” and “Jiminy.” These might be words that people say, and she obviously thinks these expressions are cute, but we don’t ever think these sort of interjections.

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

Despite her occasional insights, I found Milly to be much more enigmatic than Jack. For a girl who at the beginning of the book seems to want adventure and a change from her lower-class roots, she settles pretty quickly into a standard 50’s housewife at first not much better off then her parents were.

She actually reminded me of my mom, a dreamy person not really suited to her role, at one point imitating Jackie Kennedy. She accepts her role better than my mother did, though, and stays devoted to her husband even when he strays. Why is that? Is that just because it is what you did in her generation? But that’s clearly not true, as it is just at this time that divorce increased so much in the U. S.

Jack has the typical 50’s view of his wife and never really advances out of it. He considers their money his and discounts the effort she spends caring for the kids or keeping the house. “What do you do all day?” he asks, even though anyone who has done both roles knows that keeping a house and caring for children is a lot harder than working in an office. These were accepted views of the time, though. Still, Jones herself seems to have the same view, having Milly watch soap operas and read magazines and daydream more than showing her engaged in her daily tasks.

So, how to answer this question? I see Milly as a woman who accepts her traditional role as defined in the 50’s and doesn’t really advance much with the times. Jones shows her, for example, puzzled about feminism in the 60’s and 70’s but not really getting it. She inexplicably puts up with Jack’s dalliances and accepts his illegitimate son into her family. Most of the time, she doesn’t really seem to love Jack (although I think she loves him more than he loves her), just as he doesn’t seem to love her but criticizes her all the time. However, she stays devoted to him in other ways.

Maybe this describes most marriages. I don’t know. But I think the biggest problem with this book is that it takes a surfacy look at marriage.

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Review 1311: Literary Wives! They Were Sisters

Cover for They Were Sisters

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!

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

I jumped the gun on this book back in October because of the 1944 Club. I had already read the book when the club was proposed, so I published my review in time for that club, since it was written in 1944. So, you can read my review there. Suffice it to say that this was one of my best books of the year.

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

I like how balanced this book is in presenting marriage, especially as most of the books we’ve read for Literary Wives are about unhappy marriages. They Were Sisters is a good book for this club, because it depicts three very different marriages, although it spends most of its time on the two unhappy ones. The details of Lucy’s marriage are more implied. They married late after she didn’t expect to. She and William lead a calm, well-ordered life. They discuss their concerns with each other. When Lucy wants to provide a more stable environment for Judith, he is happy to oblige.

Lucy approves of Vera’s husband, Brian, but Vera’s marriage slowly disintegrates under the pressure of her boredom with him and his resentment of her series of admirers (whether they are actually lovers is not clear). They become more withdrawn from each other, and eventually Brian gives her a final opportunity to save their marriage. In this situation, Vera is depicted as at fault. Beautiful and spoiled, she is happy to use his money, but she cannot do without the admiration and constant entertaining. Theirs is a true mismatch.

From the beginning, Lucy thinks Charlotte is making a mistake in marrying Geoffrey. Charlotte is in love with him and at first thinks he can do no wrong. Later, she protects him even after he makes her life a misery and teaches their daughters to disdain her. This is a classic abusive relationship where he does everything to separate her from those she loves and to destroy her self-esteem. Nothing she does is right, although she only tries to please him. Eventually, she gives up and reverts to alcoholism.

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Day 1290: Literary Wives! The Stars Are Fire

Cover for The Stars Are FireToday 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!

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

After a winter that seemed like it would never end, the autumn in Maine of October 1947 is in severe drought. Grace Holland is pregnant and the mother of two small children. She feels that her marriage is in jeopardy. Her husband, Gene, never loving or communicative, has barely spoken to her since his mother died. Soon, though, she has the very existence of her family to worry about as fires threaten their small beach community.

Grace is able to save her children and her neighbor’s family, but Gene, who went out to fight the fire, doesn’t return. Everything she owned is gone, so now Grace must learn to live an entirely different life.

Anita Shreve knows how to tell a story, and this one drew me right in. Her characters are vibrant and believable. A few of her books have brought me to tears. This is not one of them, but it is still an absorbing novel to read.

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

At the beginning of the novel, Grace’s life as a wife is one of loneliness. Her husband barely speaks to her or touches her. We get the feeling he blames her, as does his mother, for getting pregnant so that he had to marry her. Left all day without a car, she can walk to shop, see her mother, or visit her girlfriend, Rosie. In her own house, however, she is treated as someone to keep the house, care for the kids, and occasionally provide sex.

Spoilers ahead . . . . Sorry, they’re unavoidable.

After she learns independence when Gene disappears during the fire, her marriage changes with his return. Now, he begins to behave with the more classic traits of an abusive husband. He speaks to her cruelly, tries to isolate her in their home, and eventually becomes threatening and physically abusive. Since the fire, Grace has had to learn to survive, and she has to figure out how to do that in an abusive marriage.

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Day 1273: The 1944 Club! They Were Sisters

Cover for They Were SistersBest Book of Five!
I was going to save my review of They Were Sisters for our February Literary Wives club, but I saw it was also published in 1944, so applied to the 1944 Club! So, for Literary Wives, I will just have to refer back to this review and then make my further comments about the depiction of wives in fiction.

I previously read another book published in 1944. Here is its link:

Friday’s Child by Georgette Heyer

* * *

Lucy’s sisters, Vera and Charlotte, are much younger than she, so much so that she was largely responsible for raising them when their mother died. Lucy never thought she would marry, but she is, happily, to William, who is a bit eccentric. She has misgivings, though, about her sisters’ choices of husbands, especially Charlotte’s.

Vera’s husband, Brian, is solid and devoted. Lucy likes him, but Vera, who is a stunning beauty, seems to be bored with him. She has a constant entourage of male followers and loves to entertain. They have two daughters, Meriel and Sarah. Meriel is close to her father and paternal grandmother, who hates Vera and is always trying to make trouble. Sarah is closer to her mother, but she is the volatile one, who has trouble making friends.

Charlotte married Geoffrey. As a young man, he was constantly pulling pranks, and Lucy couldn’t see what Charlotte saw in him. As a husband, he is hypercritical and verbally abusive, teaching his daughters, Margaret and Judith, to disrespect their mother.

1944 club logoThe three women have been apart for years when they get together at the beginning of the book. After that visit, Vera and Lucy vow to keep in better contact with Charlotte because they are worried about her. Only Lucy pursues this, however, and through her efforts falls completely for Judith as a child. Although Charlotte avoids Lucy as she loses herself to alcoholism, Judith becomes a regular visitor to Lucy and William’s home, where she sees a more normal home life than the one she has. She also makes unlikely friends with her cousin, Sarah.

This novel is an insightful study of the bonds of sisters, despite their differences. It is a lovely book, also about how the act of caring on Lucy’s part has ramifications beyond her own sisters’ lives. Again, Whipple gets better and better. I will be sad when I will have read all of her books.

More about this book in February for Literary Wives!

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