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 1174: Literary Wives! The Blazing World

Cover for The Blazing WorldToday 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

The Blazing World was one of my favorite books of 2015, so I won’t recap my review but instead provide you the link so that you can read my original review. Then I’ll go on with my comments for Literary Wives.

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

Although Harriet is a widow at the beginning of the book, all her actions are centered around her experiences of being first a daughter and then a wife. She has been a good wife, but she has had no support from her art dealer husband for her art. She has sat quietly by and watched him claim credit for her ideas. Fiercely intelligent and original, she has become convinced that as an older woman, she is almost invisible. In fact, her entire focus on the project that she conceives and that drives the plot of the novel is fueled by anger at the paternalism of first her father and then her husband.

Unfortunately, she finds that the art world is paternalistic in just the same way, as she has trouble claiming her own art after conducting her experiment. This is a powerful novel about institutional sexism—particularly the difficulties women still have in being taken seriously in any realm except that of the household, but especially in the creative arts.

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Day 1155: Literary Wives! A Lady and Her Husband

Cover for A Lady and Her HusbandToday 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

A few months ago for Literary Wives, we read The Awakening, one of the first feminist novels, written in 1899. A Lady and Her Husband was written 18 years later and shows great advances in feminist thought.

As I started the novel, I thought it was going to be about Rosemary Heyham, who is just about to be married, but instead it is about the awakening of her mother, Mary, a gentle, conventional soul who has been married to James for nearly 30 years. The action of the novel stems from Rosemary’s recognition that her mother is facing empty nest syndrome but also because she thinks her mother needs outside stimulation. She goes to her father with the idea that he give Mary a job.

James decides to put Mary to work looking into the welfare of his female employees, particularly the waitresses who work in his chain of tea shops. He believes he is a stellar employer and she won’t find anything to complain about, so in a way, this job is make work.

But Mary takes her job seriously. At first she finds nothing wrong, but she is shocked when she investigates the living conditions of the girls. (Of course, this dates the work, because these days the things she looks at and has control of would not be an employer’s business.) When she finally goes to James with some ideas, she is surprised to find him reacting angrily. What she asks for first are a room in each shop where the girls can eat their lunches, shoes that are more comfortable, and permission to do the washing up sitting down. What she gets are the shoes, but the girls will have to buy their own.

As Mary pursues her work, eventually asking for raises for the girls, she begins to see James in a less rosy light. It is difficult for me to guess how a contemporary audience would view their relationship, but for me, even when it is loving at the beginning, he patronizes her shamefully. All of this eventually leads to a crisis, when Mary is forced to evaluate even her own marriage.

While I wouldn’t say I loved this novel, I found it fascinating. A lot of it follows the evolution of Mary’s ideas from total acceptance of her situation in life to more of an awareness of her duty to herself and others. It also exposes James’s self-justifications. After I read Samantha Ellis’s introduction to the Persephone edition, which provides biographical information about Amber Reeves, I felt that if I ever had a hero, she would be it. As a young women, she had an affair with the much older H. G. Wells, whose ideas about free love didn’t include the woman being equally free, but she grew out of it. He never did, apparently, grow out of her, though, but kept rewriting her into novel after novel, where he depicted her changing from a vibrant, intelligent lover to a subservient wife. She never did, though.

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

Mary has had a conventional marriage for her time. In the beginning of the novel, she sees that her role has to do with keeping house and caring for the children. She believes that only men are capable of understanding bigger issues. She loves her husband and takes care to present him with a placid home life.

However, largely because of his reaction to how she does the job he invented for her, she begins to re-evaluate her ideas about men and their relationship to women. She sees that men care more about things—their careers, their projects—more than they do about people. She begins to question her role in her marriage and in their business—in which she owns 50%—and to feel that she has a responsibility to make sure their employees aren’t treated badly.

She also begins to understand James’s self-justifications. As an example, when Mary, having seen how some of the waitresses live, points out that they are not receiving a living wage, both James and their son Trent remark that the girls just spend their money on ribbons. And she notices how James adroitly manages to blame a more serious marital problem on Mary herself.

Within the novel, Mary awakens from a woman who has been blinded by convention to a person who is more aware of the realities of life, who is able to think through her own difficulties and come to a solution.

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Day 1133: Dept. of Speculation

Cover for Dept. of SpeculationToday 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

Dept. of Speculation is a clever and affecting short novel about marriage and relationships. It is written mostly in little fragments but still manages to generate both sympathy for the main character and suspense.

The narrator is referred to as “I” in the first half of the novel and “the wife” in the second half, I suppose signifying a sense of distance from herself. The wife and the husband navigate some of the common problems in marriage, including parenthood, settling for less interesting careers to have a paycheck, changing houses, and so on. But the primary tension comes from when the wife realizes the husband is cheating.

The novel has some truly comic moments, especially concerning motherhood. The narrator, who is scarily intelligent, feels her brain is turning to mush after she has a daughter. I could relate to some of the comments she makes, as my niece has been going through the same thing.

Funny and sad, this novel feels like a true exploration of a relationship. It is sparsely written and contains many thought-provoking quotes and facts.

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

Last meeting of Literary Wives, I commented that On Beauty was the most realistic book we had read in dealing with marriage, but Dept. of Speculation sets forward a similar situation in all its difficulty and ambiguities. It does this in an inventive way, by only looking at the fragmentary thoughts and feelings of one character, the wife. And she has complex reactions to events as well as an astounding intelligence.

Literary Wives logoFirst, we are treated to her reactions at being a mother—a frustration at the stalling of her career, exhaustion from little sleep, the sense that her intelligence is failing her, and overwhelming love. Her feelings about her husband aren’t as obvious until she is astounded to learn he is unfaithful. It is clear she thought that nothing was wrong and they would be together until death. Then she has to deal with the complexities of her reactions to that.

I think this is as thoughtful and true an observation of marriage as I have ever read.

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Day 1114: Literary Wives! On Beauty

Cover for On BeautyToday 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!

Ariel of One Little Library
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

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Howard’s End, so I didn’t catch that the opening of On Beauty indicates an homage to that novel. But it becomes more apparent toward the middle of the book. That is when Mrs. Kipps leaves Kiki Belsey a valuable painting, an informal bequest that the Kipps family chooses not to honor.

On Beauty is set in the fictional college town of Wellington, Massachusetts, where Howard Belsey is a professor of art history. Belsey is an expert in Rembrandt who dislikes Rembrandt and practically everything else. Smith does quite a bit of skewering of academia in this novel, particularly with Howard and his archenemy, Monty Kipps. Kipps is a political academic, a conservative who is giving a series of lectures entitled “Taking the Liberal out of Liberal Arts.” Howard despises everything he stands for.

Howard, one of the few white major characters in this novel, is an Englishman married to Kiki, an African-American hospital administrator. She has recently discovered that Howard was unfaithful, but she doesn’t know the whole story. The two are struggling to keep their marriage together.

Despite Howard’s difficulties with Monty Kipps, when Kipps moves his family from England to be a visiting lecturer at Howard’s college, Kiki invites them to their anniversary party. Going to the Kipps’s house to deliver the invitation, Kiki meets Mrs. Kipps and immediately feels a rapport.

The situation with the Kipps has not been helped because Jeremy Belsey, the oldest Belsey child, fell in love with Victoria Kipps when he was Monty’s summer intern and announced to his family that they were engaged. Although Kiki tried to keep Howard from panicking, he immediately ran off to London to stop it and managed to offend everyone. The engagement, of course, was already off when he arrived.

Identity is an important theme in the novel, class identity, as with Howard’s End, political, racial, and sexual. Zora Belsey, a student at the college, is a forceful young woman who is so worried about her college resume that she blackmails her way into a class using her knowledge of Howard’s affair. Yet she suffers from body hatred and later confuses a social cause with a personal crush.

Sixteen-year-old Levi fakes a Brooklyn accent and is ashamed of his middle-class background. He wants to be a bro from the hood and later takes up the cause of some Haitian refugees.

Smith’s skewering of academia is dead on, particularly in a scene where a student goes to Howard’s class determined to express her solid-sounding opinions about the painting they were assigned to study, only to be bowled over by the incomprehensible deconstructionist jargon employed by Howard and two of his pets. Smith’s American narrative voices aren’t quite as strong. Although the narrative seems to be omniscient, she actually moves among the points of view of one character after another.  From the points of view of the American characters, Kiki, or say, Zora, who has spent most of her life in the States, she occasionally uses the wrong words. No American has called a bathing suit a bathing costume since the early 19th century, for example. It’s a styrofoam cup, not a polystyrene cup, as more accurate chemically as that term may be, and she uses a term for a P. A. system that I never heard before. Still, this is a minor quibble.

More importantly, I didn’t like any of the characters except maybe Kiki, although she was busy crying much of the time. Still, I think they were realistically portrayed. This novel just didn’t do that much for me. Smith has a kind of gritty sensibility that I’m not fond of.

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

Although two marriages are touched on in the novel, the one that is central is that of Kiki and Howard. It felt like one of the more realistic portrayals of marriage in the books we have read so far for this club, because everything is not black and white. Kiki is heartbroken at Howard’s infidelity and is about to be more so. Howard loves Kiki but is dismayed and unattracted by her huge weight gain.

Both of them are in a sort of limbo at first. Howard wants to be forgiven, but for Kiki it’s not so easy. So, for a while there is sort of an indeterminate give and take, during which the situation is sometimes better, sometimes worse.

Kiki is a strong woman who wants to be loved for herself. At the same time, we don’t see very much of Kiki except in her interactions with her family and Mrs. Kipps.

Howard, whom we see more of in other situations, is a man who thinks only of himself—particularly of his own eccentric tastes and dislikes. Although he has a good sense of humor, he doesn’t really like anything, he has no passions for anything. And Howard turns out to be on a fairly self-destructive path, while Kiki, although she is unhappy, seems as if she could survive anything.

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Day 1060: Literary Wives: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

Cover for ZToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern 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!

Ariel of One Little Library
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

My Review

I reviewed this novel about a year and a half ago, and I don’t want to repeat my review except as it applies to our subject. Overall, I thought that novel was interesting and painted a devastating picture of the Fitzgerald’s marriage. Here is my original review.

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

Although the Fitzgeralds start out with a loving relationship, their marriage goes sadly awry, mostly because of Scott Fitzgerald’s insecurities. A life full of drunken parties doesn’t help, nor does Fitzgerald’s friendship with Ernest Hemingway.

Fowler depicts Zelda as a creative woman whose work is robbed from her by her support for her husband. His “assistance” to her career of publishing several of her stories under his own name turns out to be a trap, whether planned or not. Afterwards she is unable to publish because her work is perceived to resemble Scott’s too much. When she finally writes a novel, he takes it over in the editing stage and butchers it.

Ernest Hemingway dislikes Zelda and feeds on Fitzgerald’s insecurities to destroy their marriage. Although Fitzgerald was an established author and Hemingway a newcomer when they met, Fitzgerald seems unsure about his own abilities. He starts out by taking Hemingway under his wing, but Hemingway pays him back by telling him that Zelda is ruining his life. At first, Scott dismisses such ideas, but after a while, he begins to believe them.

Being Scott Fitzgerald’s wife starts out fun but turns into a horrible life for Zelda. She struggles to express her own creativity. Aside from undercutting her career opportunities as a writer, when she is offered a lead role in a ballet, he threatens to take her daughter away from her. He returns her support by being a drunk, an unfaithful one, and by trying to control her. She finally ends up in a mental institution when she actually has nothing wrong with her mind.

Moral of the story: don’t marry insecure authors.

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Day 1035: Literary Wives: The Wife

Cover for The WifeToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern 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!

Ariel of One Little Library
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

My Review

I’ve only read one other book by Meg Wolitzer, and I found it mildly interesting. The Wife, however, I found much more impressive.

Joan Castleman is traveling to Finland at the beginning of the novel. Her husband Joe is a famous novelist, and he is on his way to accept the Helsinki Prize for literature. On the flight, Joan decides their marriage is over. For too long, Joan has put up with Joe’s selfishness, including his infidelities. But their marriage is founded on a more fundamental lie.

The novel flashes back to incidents in the couple’s life, beginning with Joe’s seduction of her when she was a Smith co-ed in the 50’s and he was her literature instructor. Their relationship caused the end of his marriage and his fatherhood of a new baby.

Aside from a deft and insightful portrait of the end of a marriage, this novel deals with such feminist themes as the bias against women in the publishing industry and the sexual politics of marriage. Although I sometimes dislike Wolitzer’s apparent fascination with bodily functions, I found this carefully observed novel both dryly amusing and terribly sad. It had a twist that I saw coming, but that did not lessen the power of the novel.

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

Although this novel comments on the experience of wives from the Greatest Generation, these experiences continue, in their own way, in many current-day marriages. In her marriage, Joan continually caters to the needs of her selfish and unfaithful husband on the grounds that he is a great writer. But she does even more for him than raise the kids, keep his house, meet his every need, and be a loyal wife. In fact, their relationship is entirely one-sided, with him becoming ever fatter and more self-satisfied.

In fact, the sacrifices Joan makes for her husband are shocking. But I am determined not to tell too much. Although Joan thinks the bargains they’ve made are exciting at first, she goes into her marriage with extreme naivety. In fact, over time, it is difficult to understand what Joan gets from the marriage at all, while it is clear what Joe gets from it.

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