Review 1550: Literary Wives! Alternate Side

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!

Cynthia of I Love Days
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

At first, I didn’t think I would be interested in the characters of Alternate Side, privileged and wealthy New Yorkers who live on a dead-end block on the West Side. Nora Nolan explains they are only wealthy because of the value of their homes, but their concerns are of private schools, servants, high-powered jobs, and other areas of privilege. However, I liked Nora and some of the other characters.

Nora loves New York and their little neighborhood. She is aware, though, that her husband, Charlie, is not as happy. His job in investments has not worked out as he hoped, and he is upset when he hears that his boss, Bob Harris, has approached Nora to run a new foundation he’s setting up. To avoid making Charlie upset, Nora takes a job for a woman who is opening a jewelry museum.

Charlie is also interested in the money they could make if they sold the house, and he often suggests other cities where they could live, but Nora, loving New York as she does, pays little attention.

Then things in the neighborhood are changed by an ugly incident. Charlie has scored a space in a small lot in the neighborhood. Before that, he engaged in the “alternate side” game of moving his car to another side of the street just in time to avoid a fine. But the lot proves to be a source of contention in which he is soon involved. People try to park there without permission, and occasionally the exit is blocked.

The hothead of the neighborhood is Jack, one of the two men on the block whom Nora doesn’t like. One day, Ricky, the neighborhood handyman, parks his van a little too close to the exit of the parking lot, although there is enough room to get out. Jack doesn’t think so, though, and becomes so angry that he takes out a golf club from his car and begins hitting the van. When Ricky runs up asking Jack to stop, he hits Ricky and breaks his leg.

The block begins to take sides. Nora, who thinks Jack is a horrible man, believes he is guilty of assault, while Charlie, who was there, says it was an accident. Then when Nora visits Ricky in the hospital, Jack’s wife Sherry—whom Nora likes—becomes angry with her. At the same time, Nora notices changes in the cleanliness of the area, and someone begins leaving little bags of dog poop on her front porch. She has a dog but always picks up his poop.

Quindlen makes the disintegration of the neighborhood a metaphor for the disintegration of Nora and Charlie’s marriage. She does this without too much drama, in a way that is interesting and well written. Still, I have to say as a minor caveat about the novel as a whole that I don’t have that much sympathy for someone whose biggest worry is whether her housekeeper will quit now that the kids have gone to college.

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

This is a nuanced depiction of two people whose needs are no longer the same. Nora seems cynical about Charlie rather than loving and disdains his business ambitions. As I’ve mentioned, she loves New York, while Charlie has grown to hate it. Nora acknowledges that Charlie would be more successful in any other city, but she isn’t interested in moving. In effect, she isn’t willing to compromise her own life for Charlie’s happiness any more than she has already done by turning down the job for Charlie’s boss.

Charlie also disdains Nora’s career, and later we learn that he has always felt like Nora’s second choice in mates, because she was deeply in love with her college boyfriend, James, who turned out to be gay. In fact, it is his fresh and honest personality that she turned to then and that stands in his way at work (although, another caveat, I wasn’t persuaded by Quindlen’s depiction of this personality and in fact had only a vague notion of Charlie’s personality). Charlie himself is turning too often to drink.

I loved this novel for showing an undramatic parting of the ways, a story about people growing apart. There is no deceit, no affairs, no big fights, just a realization that parting needs to occur and the beginning of new lives.

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 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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Day 1269: Greenery Street

Cover for Greenery StreetThe way I work my blog is that, as I finish a novel, I write up my notes in a book diary. Every five reviews, I pick out my next five books from those notes, and generally speaking, I run about six months behind what I have read.

Obviously, there’s room for error in this system, and I have made one with Greenery Street. I kept expecting my review to turn up, and finally, the other day, I looked the novel up on Goodreads to see when I finished reading it. More than a year ago! I looked back in my journals to see if I inadvertently skipped it, only to find that I apparently forgot to write it up. What a shame for this delightful novel!

Greenery Street is a story of ordinary life in a couple’s first home, written in 1925. It begins on a day in April when newly engaged Felicity Hamilton and Ian Foster wander into Greenery Street in search of a house and find a very small and pleasant one. Then it jumps back to cover their meeting and engagement.

The novel details the everyday life of this newly married couple. There is nothing particularly unusual about their lives (well, not for their time—not too many young wives spend their days shopping, socializing, and supervising the help anymore), but they are rendered in interesting detail and humor, small disagreements and the normal ups and downs of a new marriage. The end of the book is telegraphed from the beginning, when we’re told the house would be too small for three. However, the journey is delightful.

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Day 1225: Literary Wives! Stay With Me

Cover for Stay With MeToday 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 happy to announce that Emily will be rejoining our discussions. However, Kate and TJ have resigned the club. We will miss them!

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

List for 2018-2019

We have just finished the selection process for our next group of books! Literary Wives will be reading the following books in the coming months.

August 2018: First Love by Gwendolyn Riley
October 2018: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
December 2018: The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve
February 2019: They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple
April 2019: Wait for Me, Jack by Addison Jones
June 2019:  A Separation by Katie Kitamura
August 2019: Ties by Domenic Starnone
October 2019: Happenstance by Carol Shields
December 2019: The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
February 2020: War of the Wives by Tamar Cohen

My Review

Yejide and Akin have been married for four years, she believes happily. But one day, Yejide’s malicious stepmothers show up with Funmi and introduce her as Akin’s second wife. Because the couple is childless, Akin’s family has talked him into marrying again. He did this without Yejide’s knowledge even though they had both agreed they didn’t believe in polygamy.

Yejide now becomes obsessed with having a child. Soon, she is suffering from a false pregnancy. Funmi, even though she has her own apartment, has started moving her things into Yejide’s and Akin’s house. The situation is made worse for Yejide, because her father’s other wives mistreated her as a child and continue to do so. She understands very well the pitfalls of this custom.

Akin is obviously a weak man unable to withstand pressure from his family. It turns out things are worse than that, however, and Yejide’s marriage will soon be in crisis.

Taking place in mid-1980’s Nigeria, this novel is set against the backdrop of political and social chaos. During one period, ordinary people have robbers breaking into their houses and stealing things while they are home. Yejide is an appealing and sympathetic character, and her people’s customs are interesting although sometimes appalling. The members of both families seem aggressive and rude at times. Overall, this is a fascinating novel.

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

I try to avoid spoilers even for this club, but for this topic that may be difficult. This novel depicts a culture that places almost all the emphasis in marriage on having children and men’s virility. Yejide finds that Akin has never been honest with her, even since the beginning of their marriage. To avoid having a discussion with his naive wife and his family, he begins a deception that is ultimately too damaging for their marriage.

Literary Wives logoLater, Akin says that he made arrangements for his most dishonest actions because he was worried about her, but it is clearly to avoid admitting his part in their fertility problems, an admission that would have solved most of their other problems.

Although both partners continue to believe they love each other, at no point do they frankly and honestly discuss their problems with each other. This omission is largely because of the weight of cultural conventions, but that does not excuse it. Their marriage is built on lies and omissions and continues into more lies, with tragic results.

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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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Day 942: Siracusa

Cover for SiracusaNews flash! The Man Booker long list was announced today, and I have actually reviewed one of the books!

* * *

Siracusa is a sometimes shocking story about a disastrous vacation in Italy. Two couples, linked by a friendship between the husband of one and the wife of the other, vacation together with one couple’s pre-teen daughter. The trip this year has been planned by Taylor except for a detour to Siracusa, Sicily, planned by Lizzie. The story alternates among the points of view of the four adults.

Lizzie’s voice seems the most reliable, but all of the adults are unreliable narrators for one reason or another. Lizzie, a writer, is deluded. She is in love with her husband Michael and does not know he is unfaithful. Michael, a formerly famous playwright who has been working on the same novel for years, is a liar who likes power games. He has been cheating on Lizzie with a waitress named Kathy.

Finn is a restaurant owner who smokes too much and is serially unfaithful. His wife Taylor is snobbish and shallow, and she is so overprotective of their 10-year-old daughter Snow that she talks for her. At some point, Taylor begins making a play for Michael, whom both she and Snow adore.

At Siracusa, a tragic chain of events begin when Kathy appears as a surprise for Michael and begins trying to maneuver him out of his marriage. It isn’t until then that Michael realizes he wants to stay with Lizzie.

link to NetgalleyThis novel is complex and interesting, with a shocking conclusion. I was rather freaked out by one of the characters from early in the novel, and my impressions turned out to be right. From starting out to be a fairly mundane story of relationships, this novel works up quite a bit of suspense.

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Day 938: What Alice Forgot

Cover for What Alice ForgotAlice Love wakes up from an accident thinking she is 29, pregnant with her first child, and madly in love with her husband Nick. But she is actually 39, the mother of three children, and separated from Nick. It takes her a while to understand she is ten years older, much thinner, and quite a bit harder and more driven than she remembers.

Alice escapes from the hospital by simply lying to the doctors. But somehow, she must piece together her life from the allusions of other people and her own feelings of occasional discomfort. How can she get along with her three unknown children? What happened between her and Nick? Why are she and her sister Elizabeth on the outs? And who the heck is Gina?

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, mostly because of its characterizations. Alice in her 29-year-old reincarnation is guileless and likable, and Nick in her memories is also endearing. Alice’s children seem like real kids, adorable one minute and infuriating the next.

I didn’t like as much the sections written by Elizabeth to her therapist or by Frannie to her long-dead fiancé, but their stories add more depth to the novel. Since the focus was so much on Alice, there probably wasn’t another way to fit that information in.

All in all, this is another highly enjoyable novel from Moriarty. Toward the end, I was afraid she was going to take an easy path, but she did not.

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Day 912: Literary Wives! The Disobedient Wife

Today 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.
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

My Review

Cover for The Disobedient WifeA distinctive characteristic of The Disobedient Wife is its sense of place in an unusual setting, Tajikistan. The novel contrasts the lives of two women, Nargis, a nanny and maid who is struggling to support her family, and Harriet, her employer.

The novel begins during a bitterly cold winter, and Milisic-Stanley effectively conveys how difficult life is for the majority of Tajiks. Harriet, in contrast, lives a life of luxury as the wife of a foreign diplomat. At first, she is not a very sympathetic character, as opposed to Nargil. The novel makes it clear that Harriet is a trophy wife who angled to take her husband Henri from his previous wife.

Nargil, on the other hand, is separated from her second husband. She loved her first husband, who died, but was rushed into her second marriage by her parents. Her second husband has proved abusive to her and her son, so Nargil has left him, at the expense of leaving her youngest son Faisullo with her husband’s family. She has no legal right to her son if her husband doesn’t grant it.

By contrast to Nargil’s, Harriet’s life is one of idleness and boredom. Her husband is almost constantly working, frequently away traveling, and she has little purpose to her life.

The writing style of this novel was so florid at first that it bothered me. However, I quickly got involved in the women’s stories and in the details of life in Tajikistan, particularly in Nargil’s life.

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

Literary Wives logoAlthough the marriages are very different, I felt they were both stereotypical, and a bit of a weakness in the novel. For one thing, we see very little of any positive interactions between the wives and husbands. As Nargil is separated from Poulod, we don’t see day-to-day interactions but understand he was an abuser. The novel concentrates more on the difficulties Nargil faces with his continuing presence in her life and her lack of rights.

Henri expects Harriet to be a proper hostess to his guests. Otherwise, he doesn’t spend much time with her. He patronizes her and leaves her with the children most of the time. It’s difficult to imagine why they ever got married.

I guess the message we’re supposed to get about this topic is that both women have the courage to leave their marriages, no matter how different.

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