Book Review: The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

Posted April 28, 2014 by LeahAdmin in Reviews / 17 Comments

The Wife by Meg Wolitzer
The Wife by Meg Wolitzer
Published by Scribner on 2003
Pages: 192
Genres: Fiction
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased

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!

  • This book totally made me want to run around and scream because I was so excited about all the great lines (I had a similar experience when reading The Interstings). I’m really curious how reading these in reverse will be for you, since The Interesings is so much longer and covers the lives of many different people. I’M SO EXCITED ABOUT BELZHAR AT BEA. I can pretty much take or leave the signings for anyone else, but I must see Meg (and how amazing does the book sound?).

    • I’m reading them in this order on purpose 😛 I’ve heard great things about The Interestings, but I wasn’t really sure it was something I would like. So I decided to read The Wife first, since it’s super short! I’m totally converted now!

  • I have never ready anything by Meg Wolitzer. I really liked your review. Will definitely check it out.

  • Read another review on this book (Shannon’s I think), and was able to get it on my swap site. I’ll have to move it up the TBR pile.

    • I read Shannon’s review, too; it was what convinced me to read it!

  • Ahhhh I HAVE to read this!! I can’t let The Interestings be the only Wolitzer book I’ve read! (Even though I really enjoyed that one). Enjoyed hearing your thoughts. 🙂

  • This sounds amazing, I need to read it, like yesterday.

  • YAY! I’m so glad you liked this one. I read it earlier this year? Late last year? It was my first Wolitzer, and I adored it.

    • Have you read any more Wolitzer since this one?

  • Sounds like a fantastic read, really looking forward to The Interestings now!

  • Great post Leah, I love your dismay at having to use a pen to write in a book! I really want to read this now, it reminds me a little of Ella Price’s Journal but sounds a bit more interesting as it has the discussion of literature as well as gender roles. Thanks for the review!

  • I never felt the flatness at the end. I think my mouth was literally hanging open from the twist (I didn’t see it coming either). Loved this book too – I’ve read The Interestings and mean to read The Ten-Year Nap this year.

  • Another enthusiastic review! It has convinced me to read The Wife before The Interestings. I have been dithering, but now I’m on it.

  • I’ve been looking forward to her new YA too – it definitely sounds really good.

    Also, you’ve sold me on this one. I figured I’d pick up The Interestings one of these days, but I 100% want to read this one first now! Underlining with a pen is serious business, man. That’s all the recommendation I need.

  • I can’t believe I haven’t read Meg Wolitzer yet. This sounds totally up my alley! I know she was everywhere a few years back when she wrote “The Uncoupling” and I did want to read it back then, but I do not know what happened.

    Thanks for this amazing review. It makes me want to buy the book ASAP!

  • I have so many thoughts going through my mind. Like OMG worst time EVER to decide to end a relationship. And OMG at school during the same time as Esther in The Bell Jar – they sooo could have been friends. And OMG this book sounds GOOD!!!

  • Your enthusiasm makes me want to read this, but I’m concerned that the limitation women face in the book would just be frustrating. Did that bother you at all?