Published by Scribner on 2003
While on a plane to Helsinki, where her famous author husband will receive a major literary prize, Joan Castleman finally decides to leave the man she has spent most of her life with. From her seat in first class, she reminisces about her life with Joe, which started when she was a student at Smith College in the 1950s.
When Joan walks into her creative writing class at Smith, she is immediately drawn to Joe, the charming young professor. Joe, in turn, is impressed by her writing skills, and eventually he leaves his wife and baby for his promising student. For years they struggle in tiny apartments, Joan working at a publishing house while Joe tries to write a novel.
Although the first story of Joe’s that Joan read was utterly unimpressive, his novel is a hit, and the couple are swept into a whirlwind of literary success. Joe goes on to be a major figure in American letters, winning awards right and left while Joan watches from the sidelines, her own literary ambitions silenced.
Predictably, Joe doesn’t remain faithful to Joan for long, and their outwardly perfect marriage is shadowed by his infidelity. Now, with their children grown and Joe at the height of his career, Joan has finally decided to leave him once and for all.
Reader, I loved this book so hard. Joan is at Smith around the same time Esther in The Bell Jar attended the college, and The Wife put me in mind of Plath’s novel. Similarly to The Bell Jar, The Wife features a female protagonist who is unhappy with the status quo but seemingly powerless to change it. Joan is an excellent writer, but she is warned against pursuing writing as a career by a bitter female author who visits the campus. Throughout her life, Joan sees how her society is dominated by men and art made by women isn’t taken seriously. Like The Bell Jar, this novel examines sexual double standards pertaining to the roles of wives and husbands, literature and its creators, and sexual expectations for men and women. This is the kind of book that I really LOVE, and I had to keep a pencil handy for underlining while reading it. (Actually, for a few hours, I was riding in the car, and I only had a pen with me, so I used PEN in a BOOK, which I never do. But the line was so good that I had to mark it!)
“I could have been like Joe if I’d wanted to. I could have swaggered around; I could have been hostile, lyrical, filled with ideas, a show-off, a buzzing neon sign. I could have been the female version of him, and therefore not loveable but repellent.”
“I didn’t own the world; no one had offered it to me. I didn’t want to be a “lady writer,” a word-painter in watercolors, or on the other hand a crazy woman, a ball-breaker, and handful. I didn’t want to be Elaine Mozell, the one who had warned me a long time ago. She’d been loud and lonely, and she’d faded from view.”
There’s a pretty big revelation at the end of the book, which I didn’t see coming, even though it made total sense. I’m apparently terrible at reading between the lines. I liked the twist, but I thought the end of the novel fell a little flat after the big reveal. It seemed a little like Wolitzer wasn’t quite sure where to go from there, so she just ended it. There wasn’t quite the resolution I was hoping for. But other than that, I thought this book was fantastic.
I can’t believe it took me this long to read Meg Wolitzer, but I’m so glad I finally did! I’m pretty sure The Wife is going to become one of my favorite books, and I will certainly recommend it to anyone who loves The Bell Jar or is interested in feminism and how women and their art have been perceived historically.
On a side note, Meg Wolitzer will be at BEA to promote her new YA novel, Belzhar, which is about a teen who goes to a therapeutic boarding school where her English class reads only the work of Sylvia Plath for one semester. The book sounds great, and I’m so freaking excited about the chance to meet Meg Wolitzer! I’m going to have to read The Interestings before I go!