Written by Meg Wolitzer, The Wife begins on an airplane, and specifically in seats 3A and 3B where Joe and Joan Castleman are sitting. The couple is on their way to Finland to attend the annual Helsinki Awards dinner where a prestigious literary award will be given to Joe, a distinguished well-respected American writer of fiction who previously won a Pulitzer for one of his books.
Narrated by Joan Castleman, the long-suffering wife who displays impatience for a husband who acts more like a baby than a man, while basking in the attention that goes along with being the wife of a man put on a pedestal, The Wife is the story of a marriage from the point of view of the wife. By the second page of the novel, the reader learns that Joan has finally decided to leave Joe after more than 40 years of marriage, and all the reader can think about is why.
They met in 1956 when Joan was an undergrad student at Smith College, where Joe was teaching a writing course. Although Joe was married and a new father, Joan was smitten and set out to win him over, which she did by impressing him with her literary talents and a willingness to focus all her attention on him and his work, although her physical attributes certainly helped.
Cleverly written, the 219-page novel unfolds over a series of days in Finland with Joan providing recollections of their years together. The story is really about Joan, a woman who grew up in the 1940’s and 50’s with aspirations to be a writer that were set aside to fulfill the expectations of what she should do: get married, have children, and be a housewife, except that she really wasn’t a housewife; she was Joe’s wife. As the novel unfolds, the reader learns the reasons Joan has finally decided to leave Joe although many a reader will wonder what took her so long (and, that’s the point).
Joan lived in a world where men were kings. Even with talent, Joan had little or no chance of becoming a respected writer as a woman in the mid-twentieth century. So, she did the next best thing: she attached herself to a man who was bestowed with possibilities simply because he was a man with nominal talent. If she couldn’t be the award-winning author, then she would be the force behind him.
In You Play the Girl, the author, Carina Chocano explains how cultural norms and expectations have worked to keep the patriarchal system in place in this country. With tremendous pressure on women to behave a certain way and to pursue certain careers, the system rewards conformity and punishes those who dare to question or do something different, all of which means most women didn’t have a chance to aspire to their career goals. Joan certainly didn’t have a snowball chance in hell of making it as an author because the “kings” (read men) would not bestow upon her recognition, respect, and reward. She saw first hand the price women had to pay to succeed in journalism and she wasn’t willing (or as she freely admits, brave enough) to pay the price. So, she endured; she suffered and she endured more until finally she had enough.
The Wife is a very good story but also a sad take on the limited opportunities talented women had in the mid-twentieth century. As I read this book, all I could think about was all the talented women that went undiscovered simply because they were female. Older readers may relate while younger readers will feel lucky they were born when they were. But, everyone will realize that no matter what decade you live in, the opportunity losses are high when a society places more value on gender than talent.