Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impressions and each germ of a feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist’s life: in understanding as in creating.
“Every reader finds himself. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself.” – Marcel Proust
The book was small, hard-covered, with a broken binding. My grandmother held it carefully as she told me the book had belonged to my mother when she was my age. She had discovered it when she was cleaning out “the little house” – a small cottage on the back of their property filled to the brim with heirlooms spanning generations – and she thought I might like to have it.
The book was Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. I had no idea then what the story was about. Read more . . .
For the last few months, I’ve been privileged to participate in the Literary Wives series, a virtual book group, with some amazing women. We’ve read, reviewed, and discussed four books centering on wives within various types of marriages and time periods: American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld; The Paris Wife, by Patricia McClean; A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick; and The Aviator’s Wife, by Melanie Benjamin. We’re wrapping up our discussion with a final post before the others go on to commence part 2 of the series.
The focus of the reading and reviews was to examine the role of the wife in these novels, both how she viewed and defined herself and was viewed and defined by others. In my opinion, the wives in these novels suffered due to a lack of acknowledgement of their personhood. In some cases, this was a personal choice: for example, the choice Alice made in American Wife to continually keep her inner life, desires, and needs a secret from her husband. She chose not to assert herself in any meaningful way for reasons that are certainly problematic. But in other cases, the lack of acknowledgement of personhood came from the husband, and from the culture at large.
In general, the husband in each novel had more power and authority over the wife in question and used it to control her and to prey upon her emotions to such an extent that each wife felt responsible for her husband’s happiness and ability to use his gifts to his fullest extent. It is too easy to judge these women and say that they should have had more courage to stand up for themselves, to ensure their needs were being met in the marriage. However, it is the nature of woman to be a caregiver, to facilitate the development of life in all it’s aspects. By preying upon and taking advantage of this trait, the husbands in these novels forced each woman to choose between her own needs and his. It was not until much suffering had been endured that these women found ways to assert their own creative gifts, interestingly in each case through the inspired voices made real through the narrative of their individual experiences, as each of the books (except Goolrick’s) was told from the POV of the wife in question. In this way, the novel as artifact becomes a testament to and actualization of the voice that has been hidden, as well as the genesis of the creative power possessed by each wife. The merits and motives of each “voice” must be determiend by each reader; however, I generally found these written testaments powerful and hopeful, perhaps with the exception of Alice’s text, simply because I believe in the act of writing it she offered the ultimate act of betrayal in a marriage with betrayal as its foundation. I discuss this in more detail in my post on the novel.
The main point across the four novels is that it IS possible for a woman to be a generative force for life within a marriage — to be a good wife, mother, home-maker — but that she has a right to expect from her spouse support in exercising that generative power towards her own creative gifts, if she possesses the talent for it. Clearly both Anne and Hadley, in The Aviator’s Wife and The Paris Wife respectively, possessed great creative potential which they were forced to subsume due to their husbands’ inferiority complexes. Love given freely should not be afraid to allow each person to express themselves in the way true to their respective gifts and talents. As persons, we strive to be women and men first, perhaps spouses next, then, in some cases, parents. But these roles are not all there is to a person. Each man and woman is blessed with certain gifts and talents which must be actualized if they are to be a whole human being who contributes fully to the purpose for which he or she is created. The characters of the husbands and wives in these four novels are no exception, and this rule is played out successively in each narrative.
In my opinion, it is this central issue which is the larger significance across the novels. We are responsible for the talents given us and will be called to account for our stewardship, or lack thereof. How did we use our gifts for the good of others? To help our fellow man? To raise hearts and minds to think of higher things? To bring beauty into the world? By it’s very nature a marriage should contribute to this wholeness of persons and thereby to communion, between the spouses, within the family, and, through them, with the larger society. The books all depict marriages that are disorered and flawed — this is to be expected as humans are flawed; however, my main concern is that in none of the books was there any hope that marriage be otherwise (except perhaps in Hadley’s second marriage at the end of The Paris Wife, but we are given little detail about this, except the crucial fact that fulfillment has been found in true support and self-giving love which is not afraid). Interestingly, in three of the novels, the point is made that faith has been abandoned by the couples. The exception is a flagrantly shallow “conversion” by the husband in American Wife, but in this faith is only a tool, a way for him to win votes, and is in no way a means towards realizing wholeness with his spouse. One wonders, then, in what has hope, faith, and love been placed? If solely in another flawed human being, then it is no surprise the marriages remain empty and devolve into deeper and deeper darkness. Moments of grace occur over and over again and sometimes are realized and accepted; but more often than not, the opposite is true, and I find this persistent lack of possibility a bit depressing.
The hearts and minds of both spouses in the novels are ordered towards wrong ends. The husbands in the novels are completely self-absorbed and their self-image inherently tied to their work — as writer, politician, explorer, miser — (in American Wife, the husband was obsessed with leaving a “legacy” but it was such an empty one — a monument to his sense of self….nice) becomes an idol that crowds out any and all concern of others. The wives — perhaps with the exception of Alice — do express a tendency, even a yearning, towards self-sacrifice, often to a great and admirable extent, but it is at the expense of their own gifts and in the end is not life-giving, either to themselves or to their spouses. Love means being able to set limits and it means being able to say “no” when someone tries to hurt you, or tries to hurt themselves. In every marriage, the husband was hell-bent on self-destruction. With rare exception, the wife’s silence contributed to rather than allayed this tendency. To be of interest, and to raise the mind and heart above mere entertainment, the novelist is called to write the truth of human experience, in all its facets. One wonders whether the truth of a marriage based on the full recognition of personhood, committed to honest self-sacrifice and self-giving love, complete with all of its requisite pain and suffering and difficulty, with a goal towards accompanying the spouse on the road towards real, whole personhood, is to be found in the “wife” novels of the day? Elisabeth Leseur comes to mind as an example of this. . .
I’d like to thank my co-hosts for the opportunity to participate these last few months — it certainly has been eye-opeing and has provoked much to think about. Unfortunately, personal circumstances prevent me from continuing on with the group at this time. Please visit my co-host’s blogs — The Bookshelf of Emily J., One Little Library, and Unabridged Chick — to find out what they thought of the novels in part 1 and what is planned for part 2 of the series.
I never really knew Anne Morrow Lindbergh until quite recently. Oh, there’ve passing references to “the Lindbergh baby” and murmurs about Charles Lindbergh’s supposedly Nazi-friendly sympathies. But Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of Charles and mother of the kidnapped and murdered baby, remained a ghostly unspoken figure in these passing asides.
But then in the spring of 2012, her last book of published journals, Against Wind and Tide, surfaced on my radar and I devoured it. I found in her a kindred spirit, a wife, a mother, a woman who had suffered deeply and rejoiced mightily throughout her storied life, a woman who only relatively late in life found her voice (and her self) and remained undaunted and persistant in her search to set it free through her writing. Right after her journals, I read her Gift From the Sea, the work she is best known for and which also deeply touched my feminine creative heart.
So it was a happy gift to encounter Ms. Lindbergh again, so beautifully realized in the pages of Melanie Benjamin’s excellent novelization of her life, The Aviator’s Wife, our last pick for this series of the Literary Wives discussion group. It was a perfect book to close with and kept me glued to the page for nights on end.
The journals I read previously were of Anne’s life from about halfway through this novel through to the end and even a bit beyond. I enjoyed the beginning of the novel and learning about her life as a shy, awkward, day-dreamy diplomat’s daughter who just didn’t seem to fit in. Young Anne had dreams she wasn’t quite sure how to fulfill, making her easy prey for the larger-than-life Charles Lindbergh who swept her off her feet before she really had much of a chance to think any of it through. In this way, she reminded me ever so much of Hadley in The Paris Wife who was in many ways very similar to Anne — a creative woman with drive and spirit who chose a life of excitement and unpredictability beside a man whose own force and drive nearly engulfs and subsumes her own. “Nearly” is the operative word — Anne, like Hadley, survives, almost by the skin of her teeth, and comes through stronger and more self-actualized than her husband, for all of his accomplishments.
In contemplating the role of the wife in the novel, I’d have to say she serves (from the male perspective) as an object lesson — a tabula rasa, meant to be molded and worked to specifications, no more, no less. I suppose this sounds harsh, but the circumstances and events within the marriage were quite harsh and a weaker woman would most certainly have crumbled under them — particularly under the brutal weight of the final unforgiveable secret which Anne discovers just before Charles’s death and which you will have to read the book to find out about.
I say “object lesson” because it is clear that Anne is talented and has dreams she’d like to pursue; however, Charles insists that she be his co-pilot and partner and he teaches her to follow his dreams and to help him to succeed in fulfilling them. This isn’t necessarily wrong or bad — spouses should assist one another in becoming fully-developed humans, capable of reaching their full potential in all aspects of life. But no spouse should coerce or commandeer the dreams of the other, and that is very much what happens in this marriage.
This is touchy territory — Charles is not protrayed as an ogre and clearly Anne chooses — she is never FORCED. But it’s the way in which these things come about that disturbs and troubles the mind of the reader. It is almost as if she is being gaslighted into things rather than doing them fully freely, because it is truly the thing she wants to do above all others. For example, Anne really wants to write, but as a busy wife and mother who spends the majority of her time alone tending to life while her husband cavorts the planet, she has precious little time or mental energy to spare for creative work. Charles effects to support her in pursuing her literary dreams, even building her a little cabin off their country estate so she has room and quiet to think — but then he tells her what he thinks she should be writing and enlists her support in writing for and about him and his life exploits. It is as if he supports her talent and the time it takes to nurture it so long as it forwards his own goals and desires….this was difficult to read, especially given my previous knowledge of Anne’s struggles and the gift her works have been to me. That she had to literally dig herself out from under her husband’s devouring shadow speaks to her strength, but it also speaks to something very psychologically dark in the underbelly of the marriage that was hard for me to stomach.
Every time Anne tries to assert herself, especially in things concerning the welfare of her children, Charles undercuts her with the same argument about his need of her and her essential role (which he has groomed her into) as his partner and copilot, making her feel time and again that he cannot do anything without her and thus forcing her to choose between the things that identify the very soul of who she is — her motherhood and her writing — and their relationship. Charles wants her full attention and support, but is not willing or able to give her the same in return, nor does he have any deep capacity for sharing her with the other two essentially necessary components of her life — their children and her words.
It is clear to me that Anne loves Charles and she sees his flaws clearly, though perhaps not as early as she might have. And Anne is herself flawed — there are issues of classism, naiveté, prejudice, and entitlement that can make her off-putting. There is no attempt at idolizing in Benjamin’s portrait. She strives for wholeness and I believe she achieves it. For all his shortcomings, Charles does give to Anne a powerful gift — he nurtures courage in her heart and through his pushing, she learns to trust herself in a way she might not otherwise have been able to. In a similar way, Anne provides Chares with the emotional stability, love and sincere human contact that he was deprived of as a child. He is an emotionally stunted human, incapable of real depth and this defect makes him dangerous. Marriage to a man like Charles ultimately means living life alone.
However, like the other female characters in The Paris Wife and American Wife, Anne chooses to love, chooses to stay, chooses to work and persevere in a less than ideal marriage. She eventually also chooses to stand up for herself and what is most dear to her. She chooses, too, to sacrifice herself for the good of her children to give them the best possible life in an otherwise wholly unconventional and not necessarily happy domestic arrangement. It is an arrangement in which she, while certainly chosen by Charles once, is not chosen by him over the long-term, especially once she ceases to continue to run after him.
Ultimately, perhaps, Charles feels his Pygmalion project is unsuccessful, which accounts for his actions towards the secret revealed at the end of the novel. This is nothing less than devastating. Anne does nothing to deserve his treatment of her and the fact that she manages to rise above pettiness and bitterness to live a life of gift to others speaks a great deal to her character. Charles is a problematic figure. There is a lot about him which, like Hemingway in The Paris Wife, is very attractive. But simply because a man is attractive and fun to be with and exciting at times, does not necessarily mean he will be a good husband. If there is anything that is a common thread through all of the books we’ve read for this series it is this essential fact. There is the sense throughout the book that actions speak louder than words when it comes to love — and there are some actions that are so antithetical to love that it would seem hard to survive the depth of the betrayal. But Anne does survive and she becomes more fully human in her pain.
One of the things I liked best about this novel is the authenticity of voice Benjamin achieves with Anne. Since I’ve read her journals and her non-fiction, I was worried that the voice in the novel would be different than the Anne I’d gotten to know. But Benjamin did her homework and Anne’s voice rings through loud and clear in this fictional presentation.
The Aviator’s Wife is a beautiful, poignant, joyful, and often absolutely heartbreaking journey through one woman’s life which could stand as representative for the lives of many women. It is, ultimately, a testament to the authenticity of the feminine genius and the need to cultivate this spirit of creative self-giving, often under the most challenging circumstances. I recommend it wholeheartedly. And if you happen to be a writer, Ms. Lindbergh is someone you’ll want to get to know as a friend and mentor — be sure and check out the other two books I mention in this post.
Interesting reads from across the literary landscape . . .
Lost Evelyn Waugh letters reveal thwarted love for ‘bright young thing’, by Dalya Alberge for The Observer
Poets in Partnership: Rare 1961 BBC Interview with Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes on Literature and Love, by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings
Flannery O’Connor’s Last Novel, Paul Elie in conversation with Kevin Spinale, S.J., a podcast for America Magazine
I regret to say that I did not finish A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick, though I made it through 3/4s of the book and so feel I can say I gave it my best shot. The book may appeal to certain readers, though I am not one of them. I offer little here by way of critique or review of the book except to say that the difficulty I had with reading it came from marked flaws in the realization of believable characters.
The plot, briefly, is of a wealthy man, Ralph Truitt, who “purchases” a mail-order bride, of sorts. This woman, Catherine, turns out not to be who she says she is, but rather an imposter intent on killing Ralph for his money. I am not spoiling anything by telling you this, as it’s pretty clear from the start that this is her plan. What I won’t tell you is how she is luridly and intimately involved in Ralph’s past in a way that is beyond distasteful. To find out, you’ll either have to chance it with the book or perhaps look for more information in the posts my co-hosts write for this novel (see links below).
As a far as plot goes, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with it. A skilled writer could do something interesting with it, and there are flashes of that something in this book — unique turns of phrase, some interesting twists. But there is way too much repetition, and not enough action happening over the course of more than 100 pages to warrant the page count. However, plot aside, my struggle with the novel is the lack of credible character development – this was a deal-breaker for me.
For starters, Ralph is a shallow character with a textbook case of sexual obsession…could be interesting, except Goolrick doesn’t go there. Why is Ralph this way – is it a choice or is it a mental disorder? And what does he suffer by struggling with his obsession? How does he grow as a person through his obsession? What is his moment of grace, the moment when he can choose to change and become something other than what and who he is? These are all worthy questions to explore. However, none of them are investigated. Ralph is sexually obsessed as a child and grows into a sexually obsessed adult. He never apologizes for it or questions it or seeks to restrain it; he simply revels in it. This is hard to like. Nothing about him is attractive or sympathetic, in spite of the useless and tired old saw that he had an overly religious, borderline abusive mother, an overly indulgent if disconnected father, and a skewed image of God. Over and over again, we read is that Ralph is thinking about sex, about his past sexual exploits, and about all the people all around him having sex. How is this supposed to compel me to care about this character, much less continue reading? It seems to me Ralph chooses to give in to his compulsion and never thinks critically about it. If he is mentally ill, then the book should be about grappling with this form of mental illness. If he is simply a sex addict, then it should be about that. But it isn’t about either of those. I’m not quite sure what the book is about, but it isn’t about the reality of what it is to live as a sexually obsessed, psychologically damaged individual. For the record, I tend NOT to gravitate towards books that have a central focus on sex, and this one absolutely has that focus, across the board, for all the main characters. Had the lack of adequate character development not been so glaring, it is quite likely this focus on sex would have been the next reason in line for why I didn’t finish the novel. It is entirely possible that the emphasis on sex overshadowed the need to develop sound character — this seems to me a common, though no less depressing, problem in popular fiction. Moving on….
Via an odd flashback, we learn that years earlier, Ralph meets a woman in Italy, Emilia, whom he falls in love with and brings to America. He builds an entire world for her, but she is shallow and unfaithful and loves only his money. Ralph’s choice of Emilia in light of his sexual obsession and her shallowness is entirely inexplicable. There is nothing about her character that would warrant either his choice of her as a mate, nor such a dramatic change in his character – full-throttle libertine to chaste spouse in one fell swoop? No way, not for someone like her. Also inexplicable is how Ralph is duped by her disguised greed – his worldliness would seem to make this an impossibility. Also inexplicable is his grief at her death and his subsequent sublimation of his previously physically compulsive sexual obsession for a no less active mentally compulsive sexual obsession. None of this makes any sense, nor does it ring true psychologically.
Fast forward to the present and Ralph’s weird liaison with Catherine. I’m not even going to discuss Catherine except to say that she is a very sorry excuse for a woman. Ralph’s contract to marriage with Catherine is also a ruse, in more ways than one, and does nothing to soften him – or her – and make him even remotely likeable. What is a wife in this book? How is she defined? Based on the portion of the novel I read, a wife is 1) cold-hearted and fanatical, 2) unfaithful, 3) a schemer, 4) greedy and selfish, 5) a murderer, 6) a whore, and 7) vengeful. Entirely too much negativity for me. I have a lot of compassion and empathy, but the cold-blooded plan Catherine cooks up with her lover to murder Ralph for his money and the appalling abuse she takes at her lover’s hands are beyond sympathy. Nor did I really care much for their sick sordid relationship and what they were plotting, simply because I didn’t really care about Ralph. The whole triangle is a mess and left me feeling page after page like I was reading a novelization of All My Children or As The World Turns. I kept wondering, “What is this book about? What am I supposed to take away?” There were simply no answers… when I read I’m looking for more – more depth, more complexity, more realism, and more psychological richness.
It is hard for me to be critical of Goolrick. As a writer myself, I know how extremely difficult it is to create believable characters with psychologically sound motivations. Writing anything well is hard work. I do not say he is not talented; however, these faults in character development, at least for this reader, were deal-breakers. I simply needed to stop the car. Perhaps the last ¼ of the novel shatters all of my 3/4 view impressions and, if so, I’d be happy to stand corrected. But who am I anyway? The critics loved this book. I leave it to more erudite readers than myself to determine its value. I abandoned it with a slight pang because I felt I might be letting my co-hosts down with a lackluster discussion. But that was quickly relieved by losing myself in a book that did have what I was looking for – the next book on our Literary Wives list: The Aviator’s Wife, by Melanie Benjamin. Hope you’ll be back in August for the finale to this segment of the series.
Did you read this pick? What did you think?
“In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dull and know I had to put it on the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.” — Ernest Hemingway, Preface to “The First Forty-Nine”, 1938
I might as well say right out the gate that reading American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld, was often like wrestling with an alligator – or at least it felt like what I imagine alligator wrestling to feel like. All just a way of saying it was a challenge for me on many levels — none of which should dissuade any of you from reading the book, however. I find it more difficult than I’d thought it would be to write succinctly about my experience. The role of the wife is blurred by issues of character, theme, and technique. But many was the night I couldn’t put the book down even though my eyes were burning with exhaustion. That says a lot for Ms. Sittenfeld‘s storytelling abilities – she definitely reels you in and keeps you on the line the whole way through.
* * * * *
American Wife is the first-person narrative of Alice Lindgren, a rural middle-class Midwestern girl coming of age in Wisconsin the 1950s and 60s whose voice — at least initially — reminded me a lot of Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. If you know Scout, you’ll understand this is a good thing. Alice possesses a storyteller’s voice, and not one that sensationalizes the narrative, making you doubt her reliability and question her sincerity. This is the voice of a girlfriend, someone you’d sit on the porch of an evening with, sharing confidences over a glass of wine. This is a voice the reader has little reason to doubt, simply because she doesn’t hide anything from you – she tells you how she felt, good and bad, and what happened to her, good and bad, knowing full well that “times have changed” and her modern reader might have opinions and judgments that contradict or conflict with her own. She doesn’t try to hide who she is, nor does she hide the heaviness of the secrets and the past she carries with her on into adulthood. In the beginning, Alice possesses a clarity of perspective, an honest approach to confiding her story, and a fragile nature which at times struggles to breathe in the miasma of life-altering events that come all to close to suffocating her as a young adult. The weight of these events and the humanness they confer on Alice’s character makes the reader trust her, care about her, and want to know. It was this sense of wanting to know that kept me turning the pages and made me care very much what happened to this woman.
But that is all in the beginning . . .
The intense events Alice experiences as a young adult change her, and after the first section of the novel it is hard, if not impossible, to believe that it is the same Alice Lindgren telling the story. To escape the emotional trauma of adolescent tragedy, she moves away from her hometown and becomes a librarian. She seems to love this career, yet leaves it with nary a pang when the man of her dreams, socialite Charlie Blackwell, asks to marry her. She and Charlie soon marry and the remainder of the novel chronicles their tumultuous marriage and rise through the upper echelons of wealthy American society amidst bids for governmental office, first at the state level and culminating with the presidency of the United States.
At first, I sensed the maturing Alice, who has lived her life and is looking back telling the story, is very much the same young girl who struggled to maintain a sense of self, ideals, and principles in a world where those things were vastly shifting and being redefined. However, as the story went on I struggled over and over with trusting this narrator/character who seemed so intent on confiding her innermost secrets and yet moved through life as a chameleon of sorts, never making waves and always doing what was expected of her, even if doing so meant she needed to betray herself and live a lie, which she repeatedly exposed via her confidences. At one point Alice tells her husband that she may disagree with him, but she’ll never tell anyone that she does. And yet the entire book is an expose of the ways in which she disagrees with her husband. Thus she is caught in the act of betraying not only him, but of placing herself in a questionable position as to her ultimate reliability as a narrator.
It was hard for me to determine how Sittenfield wanted me to think about Alice – and maybe that is the author’s trump card: because the temptation for this reader was to want to judge Alice, but in doing so I would have to similarly judge myself. Because how often, and with whom, are we ever truly ourselves? When do we not have something to hide? When do we compromise when we should stand up? When do we look the other way and subtly decide to participate in the lie rather than call attention to ourselves as the only believer in truth? These are all questions the careful reader is forced to confront in the book and they make for uncomfortable, if revealing, reading.
* * * * *
As I reflected on how to respond to this novel, I was reminded of a quote from Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, that “a man becomes another thing in war.” What other thing does a woman become in marriage? It seems there are multiple possibilities, and not all of them, at least as portrayed in this novel, are favorable or desirable.
How does Alice define what it means to be a wife? She has the example of her mother – a quiet, calm woman who never rocks the boat and who chose marriage and the relocation it provided her to get away from a toxic family situation – and her grandmother, a widow with a secret life. In both cases, these early examples of what it means to be a wife present Alice with definitions that center on escape and secrecy. Perhaps we ought not to be surprised to find out that these seem to be the central motivating forces that propel her in her interactions with others.
Alice’s tell-all approach gives the reader the sense that she isn’t keeping anything back. And she says repeatedly that she’s only ever been herself, implying that she is true and steadfast even in the midst of efforts and events that seek to change her. Caught in a less than charitable moment of criticism of her married friends, she calls herself on it before the reader can. The trouble is that neither Alice nor the reader ever really knows who that “self” is and whether or not the self being described is the real Alice. She comes across as a chameleon, one skilled at blending into the situation so deftly that no one can comment that a hair is out of place. Alice is eminently presentable, flawless…on the surface. Hence, the “wife” in the novel seems to be defined as a non-entity, an object, and a liar. These definitions do not come only from the outside, but are actively participated in and adopted by Alice herself, albeit with much protestation.
Alice tells us early on that she’d stopped thinking of marriage as my birthright. It wasn’t just that I no longer considered myself inherently deserving or that I no longer believed I was looked after by the universe. It was also that I would not want to marry a man unless I could show myself to him truly – I had no interest in tricking anyone – but I couldn’t imagine showing myself to most men, revealing myself as someone more complicated than I seemed. If thinking of the exertion and explanations that would require discouraged me, it also made me calm. (p. 122-23) This all sounds very noble, except that Alice doesn’t behave according to this belief in choosing Charlie. Charlie is a game player, as is his whole family, and ultimately is shown to be out for himself alone with little to no regard for others, including his wife. (Sorry – that’s harsh, but no less true. I found absolutely nothing attractive or redeeming in his character and never was able to stop wondering what in the world she saw in this man.) Her marriage to Charlie undercuts everything Alice asserts here and so this “wife,” while she may reveal herself (seemingly) to the reader, is not only quantifiably unable to reveal herself in her marriage, but to even be herself on any substantial level.
This is sad because, in spite of everything Alice says she loves about Charlie, there are no shortage of cues as to his true nature. Consider that he has no respect for her career, that he allows her to be humiliated in front of his family and excuses their behavior, that he regularly commits adultery the “easy way” through pornography, that he misses important scheduled events so that he can do what he wants to do, and that he simply doesn’t “listen” to her or even see her. He wants a trophy wife who will work for him and be what he needs her to be. All of these things are game-changers, and yet Alice chooses him over and over again, and with each “yes” allows her “self” to become more and more invisible. She says she’s always never less than herself, and yet we constantly see her as less than herself and even willingly so. It is this difficulty of figuring out who she is and what she wants that makes the novel both compelling and frustrating. Any one who feels compelled to repeat over and over again that she is herself and true to herself and has always been herself is suspect. Alice in this bears a frightening similarity to Gertrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet who, when confronted with the truth that one like her has been less than honest with herself and everyone else in spite of all her fancy speeches to the contrary, famously states “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.” Alice for sure protests too much.
I wondered at this and was struck by the possibility that perhaps, for all her protests, this erasure of self is just what Alice wanted because it truly is the easiest. It is so much easier to be victimized, to be swallowed whole, to be passive, than to act and assert and work and be. Love isn’t easy – real love is hard and real love within marriage might be said to be the hardest of all simply because spouses have no where to hide from the truth of themselves. Contrary to what our popular culture tries to assert, real married love isn’t about gratifying the self. Real love asks for some self-sacrifice and seeks the ultimate good of the other. This is not a worldly good. Real love demands radical authenticity and a continually conscious assent to a greater effort to live in truth and to accept the truth about the other one is in relation with. But real love doesn’t mean a burial of self, nor does it mean that silence in the face of injustice, abuse, or other actions which demean human life or the relationship is ever acceptable. Real compromise does not mean self-annihilation. It might be easier to let the demons in a relationship run wild and wreak havoc, but this doesn’t make it okay. To be fair, there is a sense that Alice makes moves towards this real love. She does leave Charlie at one point and she does make efforts in the marriage that demand sacrifice; however, these efforts seem to pale in comparison to the compromises she makes that are neither healthy nor authentic, compromises which do not seek the good of either spouse. And in evaluating her actions in all of this, I was forced to confront my own actions. It is this sense that in watching and examining and evaluating Alice one is doing the same to oneself that saves the novel. It is also the strongest testament to Sittenfeld’s ability as a writer, this way she has of turning the tables, of making it not so easy to judge.
One especially problematic incident demands to be noted. Alice’s failure to act moves into territory that is unforgiveable when it affects an innocent child. Her refusal to confront her husband about his pornographic stash not only implies her tacit acceptance of it, but makes her complicit in any damaging effect it might have on others. When a young child encounters the material, neither Alice, nor Charlie, nor even the child’s parent reacts with the appropriate outrage and sense of seriousness the situation demands, for it is nothing short of child abuse. As an educator, Alice cannot pretend ignorance of mandated reporting laws. For me, this was when I faltered in my reading and came close to not finishing the book. From a craft perspective, Sittenfeld nails it because she is able to evoke stomach turning horror in the way this scene plays out and the bitter taste of the residual fallout. But she also takes incredible risk because the reader has pretty much nothing to go on from that point in terms of caring about Alice. This event could be a moment of grace, an epiphany, in which she responds to the call to act and speak up. Instead, she brushes it off, telling the child she should speak with her parents and saying nothing to Charlie when he laughs about the incident.
You’ll have to read the book yourself to find out if Alice ever takes a stand and becomes “another thing” in this marriage. For this reader, the way a wife is defined in this novel is not anything I want to be defined as. And maybe that is enough — that encountering the opposite provides an opportunity to see one’s way towards being true and honest and whole, both within marriage and without.
* * * * *
The book is inspired by and based on events in the lives of Laura and George W. Bush; unfortunately, I read the Reader’s Guide in the back of my copy before reading the book. The names of these public figures have been changed to allow Sittenfield to use the actual events of the Bush’s lives as a basic structure, while simultaneously allowing her to embellish and imagine freely those areas which are unexplained or open to interpretation. I would have enjoyed the book a lot more if I HADN’T known about the Bush connection. Also, the graphic bedroom scenes lack dignity and undercut the confidential design of the book — these tell-all incidents make Alice’s character less “real” simply because most women don’t talk like that about their intimate experiences, even with very close friends, and certainly not with complete strangers. I liked Alice less, trusted her less, because of her lack of delicacy here.
I definitely recommend reading this book as one of a group, where you know for a fact you’ll have an opportunity to discuss and share. The book travelled around in my head the entire time I was reading it and even when I wasn’t. It’s the kind of book that needs sounding, so do yourself a favor and read it with a buddy, and by all means weigh in here! Overall, it’s a page-turner and would be perfect for a lazy beach read or a long flight this summer. While my discussion of the book might lead one to believe I didn’t like it, I was glad I read it because it was well-written and made me think. It also allowed me to thoroughly escape from a lot of recent stresses. One can’t ask for more than that, making American Wife worthy of your consideration as you plan your summer reading list.
Did you read the book? What did you think?
A special note of thanks is in order! Maggie Oberrender, Marketing Manager at Random House, generously ensured each of us participating in the Literary Wives cooperative had copies of American Wife, as well as The Paris Wife and The Aviator’s Wife (our second and fourth titles in the series). Thank you, Maggie, for your enthusiasm and for helping us to make this possible!
I love John Keats‘s slow melancholy in his “Ode to a Nightingale“. Nostalgia rings steadfastly through the work and brings to mind a sure sense of loss over things that are no more coupled with an abiding gratitude for fine memories and the beautiful sensations they evoke. The nostalgia, the memories, serve as a balm for the weary soul crushed by the hard exile of life. And so the poem, for me, is an eminently spiritual one and soothes when read aloud well.
Keats trained as a physician before giving up medicine to write poetry full time and he expressed the sense that poetry should be a healing force in the world. Thus, it must be beautiful and touch what ails man, namely his soul. Benedict Cumberbatch’s reading of the poem suggests he understands and appreciates Keats’s sense of beauty as a healing solace. Close your eyes, listen, and prepare to be refreshed.
I’m excited to be hosting a new series on Persephone Writes along with three other spectacular blogging women! It’s a virtual book group of sorts in which we’ll be exploring the role of wives in contemporary fiction. Along with our reviews of the books we’ve chosen, we’ll also address thought-provoking questions about the ways in which wives are defined in the novels, particularly with regard to voice and identity, within their marriages and without. And since Persephone Writes is a blog about the writing life, you can also expect discussion of craft points and style in relation to each novel as I make an effort to “learn” from my reading. 🙂
Allow me to introduce my lovely co-hosts for this project:
Ariel Price (One Little Library) is an editor who will soon be trading her freelancing days for the life of an in-house editorial assistant at Corwin Press. A literature enthusiast, she likes heroines full of gumption and conflicts fraught with ethical dilemmas. Her favorite book is and always will be Jane Eyre. (Psst….Ariel also organized this whole thing and designed our oh-so-pretty logo — thanks, Ariel!) Ariel is on Facebook and Twitter (@arielprice).
Audra Friend (Unabridged Chick) is an Air Force brat whose love of reading was nurtured by her family’s numerous national and international moves. Her family encouraged her reading of historical novels to learn more about the places they were stationed. (She still turns to historical fiction before any trip!) Audra studied anthropology and geography as an undergrad, and she’s most taken with novels that address the stickier side of history, place, and society as well as the roles of women from royals to riffraff. Audra has worked in the non-profit sector for the last ten years. Connect with Audra on Facebook and Twitter.
Emily January (The Bookshelf of Emily J.) is a Ph.D. student studying professional communication who has worked as an editor and a composition instructor. She is the mother of two little girls and loves chocolate and ice cream. The thing she wants most right now is a day in bed with a good book, preferably fiction. You can visit Emily at her new Facebook page.
These girls have serious writing chops and review with attitude. I’m honored to be included among them.
Here’s the game plan for our little club, which you’re encouraged to join: Each month, beginning May 1, the four of us will post our reviews and reflections on one of four novels. For April, we’re reading American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfield. In May, The Paris Wife by Paula Mclain. We’ll wrap up June and July with A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick, and The Aviator’s Wife, by Melanie Benjamin, respectively. And just in case you’ve any doubts about the ability of these titles to stand up to some serious literary criticism, have a look at David Foster Wallace‘s syllabus using “lightweight” fiction in the classroom.
So what are you waiting for? Grab the first book and get ready to join the discussion!