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 529: The Interestings

Cover for The InterestingsIt took me awhile to get interested in The Interestings. (I just had to say that.) Reading it was ultimately worth it, but I found the novel difficult to get into, beginning as it does with a situation and characters to which I do not relate.

Jules Jacobson is an awkward teenager when she arrives at a summer camp for the arts during the mid-1970’s. The campers are mostly rich New Yorkers. She is not rich, but received a scholarship for the camp after her father’s death. Jules feels inferior to these kids, but she is unexpectedly adopted by a small group who call themselves the Interestings.

Ethan Figman is an unattractive but kind boy. He spends most of his time at the camp learning animation and drawing. Jonah Bay is the beautiful but elusive son of a famous folk singer. Cathy Kiplinger is a talented dancer. Ash and Goodman Wolf are a wealthy, attractive sister and brother. It is not clear what Goodman does at camp besides flirt with girls, but Ash is studying drama.

Jules is entranced by her friendship with these people, so much so that her relationship with them becomes a preoccupation of her life. She is particularly attracted to the Wolf family, and Ash becomes her best friend. Ethan early on makes overtures to her of a different nature, but she is not attracted to him.

The novel follows Jules’ relationship with her friends over a period of forty years. It particularly focuses on Ash and Ethan, who marry and become extremely successful.

For Jules, the Interestings glow with a special aura long after most of them have not lived up to their promise. Wolitzer’s intent is to examine issues such as how much value to place on a constant striving for success and its link with the need to feel special. She also examines the life of art—how far do you go for art before giving up? After having little success, Jules abandons her own desire to be a comic actor. She also goes through a long period of envy for Ash and Ethan while she and her “ordinary” husband Dennis struggle financially.

My problem with this novel is that I don’t understand the attraction the group, and particularly the Wolfs, have for Jules. In truth, she seems dazzled by the wealth and privilege of this family, even if she doesn’t realize it. Ash is a nice enough person, although somewhat vaguely depicted. But somehow these fascinating Wolfs manage to raise a self-absorbed, uncaring son and a daughter who is too eager to please her family. Early on, Goodman is accused of a serious crime. The way his family handles this problem is very telling, as is the fact that they never seem to consider he might be guilty.

Wolitzer sometimes tells us other things I personally feel the novel does not demonstrate, for example, how witty Jules is. I saw very little evidence of wit in the dialogue, and when I did, it usually came from Ethan. Maybe the novel would have been more compelling if we could feel the attraction of the Interestings ourselves or hear the sparkling wit. Or has Wolitzer planned for us to remain detached, to see through everyone from the first?

This novel provides many ideas to ponder. After I stuck with it, I got interested in what happened to the characters, but I didn’t  love it.