Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Literary Wives #6: The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon

Welcome back to the Literary Wives Virtual Book Club!
  • Our sixth read was a "scorcher"! 
  • You should add it to your to-read list for 2014!

  • ISBN-13: 9780385537629
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: January 28, 2014
  • Pages: 320

Firstly, thanks to the publisher for providing all of us with copies of this outstanding novel to review prior to publication. 

My favorite quote: "...the pecking order remained intact. Wife first. Then mistress. Leave the maid behind to clean up the mess."

Although not my favorite genre, this book felt a bit like noir as I read it, but it had me enthralled from the start! And that feeling never left me as I progressed to the end! I totally agree with Melanie Benjamin's review--it is definitely a "page-turner"! I really wanted to just sit and finish it in one fell swoop! However, that full-time job and other daily life activities prevented my doing so! I am certain that did nothing to diminish my enjoyment, however. 

For me, the plot was the main character in this story. Admittedly, I was fascinated that I loved this book although I felt the characterization to be a bit less in-depth than I typically prefer. I kept thinking to myself as I read, "Wow...none of these women is truly operating in Joe's best interests, are they?" 
I initially noted to myself, "Joe is a bastard." 
Not too long after that, "Joe is really a bastard!" 
And, lo and behold, these insights were proven to be true! 
As they say, when you play with fire...

As always with historical fiction, I was delighted to find myself a bit more enlightened about a historical event/situation, as with this "Hoffa-like" disappearance of a Supreme Court judge during the Tammany Hall days of total corruption. Nothing would surprise me about that era in NYC! Naturally, I was reminded of The Godfather in the consistency of relationships based upon raw corrupt political power with a foundation of money and influence as drivers. 

All the hosting bloggers contributed questions to be asked of the author, Ariel Lawhon (pictured to the left), as she graciously agreed to grant us an interview. Audra at Unabridged Chick graciously conducted and posted the interview here. I befriended Ariel on Goodreads when only about halfway through the book, I was so impressed!! In addition to being physically beautiful, she is very open to communicating with readers. 
Ariel is co-founder of the popular online book club, She Reads, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). She believes that Story is the shortest distance to the human heart.

Now for the "wifely" questions!

1) What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Stella reminded me of Alice in American Wife in the fact that she was also a politician's wife, necessarily intent upon keeping up appearances to enable her husband's career. Though Stella was definitely feistier than Alice (Admittedly, I am still angry with Alice!), I am uncertain whether Alice's rather demure countenance would ever reconcile with Stella's steadfast mode of retribution! As Ariel Lawhon stated to me, perhaps Stella is a reminder that "...we should never underestimate anyone. Everyone keeps secrets." Stella turns the role of wife on its ear by proving that she can play the "boys game" just as well or even better than they can. She organizes her own "crime syndicate" to accomplish the unthinkable. Males may think they are controlling their women, but not always...even way back then!  :) Maria is portrayed as the "model"/"perfect" wife to Jude, however, her own well-intentioned meddling into his affairs proves to be very dangerous for both of them. I rather disapprove of Ritzi's abandonment of her wifely role and then reappearing out of the blue, pregnant with another man's child, and expecting to be accepted and welcomed back by her husband. Really? I realize it's possible, but I doubt I could be that forgiving. Frankly, after three years, I'm relatively certain I would have filed for divorce based upon abandonment and developed a new life. In my opinion, she is VERY lucky, in so many ways. 

2) In what way does this woman define "wife"--or in what way is she defined by "wife"?

Unfortunately, it seems that Stella is totally defined by her role as wife. She is intimidated by Joe to "behave" and do as she is told, unless she face his wrath. I felt Joe's capacity to dole out abuse in any form was never far below the surface in their relationship. It seemed that as long as she followed his dictates and "kept up appearances," just as her mother desired her to do, she would be left relatively unscathed by him or his cronies. However, as did Catherine in A Reliable Wife, Stella actually uses her role as the ever-dutiful wife to reap retribution upon her husband. As noted above in my favorite quote from this book, the hierarchy seems to hold with the other criminals in Joe's world--the maid can be threatened, coerced, and used, as is the mistress, of course, but the wife is relatively untouched by such measures, except from her own husband! Now that's some irony, is it not?!? Speaking of irony, although Ritzi appears to be the one of these three women the least disposed to becoming a mother, and pregnant by someone other than her own husband, is the only one to live to bear a child.

Don't forget to check out the others' reviews:

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J

Emily 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.

Find her on Facebook

Ariel of One Little Library

Ariel is an editorial assistant at a Southern California publishing house. 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.

Find her on Twitter and Facebook

Audra of Unabridged Chick

Audra is a 30-something married lesbian with a thing for literary fiction and historical novels, classic noir, and vintage favorites. She lives in Boston with her wife and works for a non-profit. She loves interesting heroines, gorgeous prose, place as character, and the occasional werewolf.

Find her on Twitter and Facebook

Carolyn of Rosemary and Reading Glasses

After five years in graduate school, Carolyn O is on hiatus to be the read-at-home-parent to her small son. She works as an editor, writer, and proofreader on the side, and hopes to return to teaching soon. She loves used bookstores, early modern drama and poetry, feminism, and anything Joss Whedon creates.

Find her on Twitter

Cecilia of Only You

Cecilia teaches writing and self-presentation skills to international professionals by day and night (the curse of time zone differences) and in between squeezes in some reading and writing of her own. Her reading tastes are pretty eclectic, though she loves literary fiction and memoir most of all, and works by women and international writers in particular. The best part of her day is the end-of-the-day book club that she shares with her 9-year-old son.

Find her on Twitter and Facebook

And the newest addition, Kay of whatmeread

Kay is a long-time professional technical writer who has taught composition and technical-writing courses at the college level. She loves reading all kinds of books. When she recently got an iPad and spent some hours playing games, her husband thought she'd undergone a personality change. But soon she was back to reading. She is the secret author of three (sadly unpublished) trashy romance novels.

Welcome, Kay!!

The February 1, 2014 book is                                                                 
The Inquisitor's Wife: A Novel of Renaissance Spain
by Jeanne Kalogridis

Please plan to join us!


  1. Wow! Great review, Lynn! I love the connections you make with Alice and Catherine, too. Although I loved Alice, so maybe that's why I wasn't so fond of Stella. You and Emily both mentioned how it's ironic that Ritzi was the one to become a mother. I hadn't really thought of it! But that's so true.

  2. Oh, Ariel, I'm glad someone loved Alice! ;) Thanks for stopping by and thanks for all your time and effort coordinating this online venture! It's just so much fun to see everyone's reactions, isn't it?

  3. You have made many interesting observations of the roles of the wives. I didn't see Stella as intimidated by Joe so much as having made an implicit deal with him. Even though he was a jerk, she had agreed to be a certain kind of a wife with him. I just think, as he became more and more corrupt, that she found herself rethinking that deal.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Kay! That could well be the way her mind was working. Perhaps because my husband researches interpersonal violence, I am usually looking for any indication of such behavior(s)? Don't know, but we all have our unique interpretations and that's what makes life interesting, especially when talking about books! Each reader notes different aspects of the same readings. I believe several LW hosts agree with you regarding Stella's "deal" as a wife. Could be she was also reacting more to his increasingly bold "extramarital" activities? She did slam his hand in the car door after all! :)

  4. Loved your thoughts, Lynn!

    I hadn't made the connection with Alice, but you're spot on (and oh god, I too am still so angry at her!). I would have loved to learn about Stella and Joe's courtship through the novel -- in googling, it turns out he was her divorce lawyer, and married her days after her divorce! So that says something huge about their relationship -- were they having an affair while she was separated? was she emotionally bereft and taken in by him? etc etc.

    As for the lack of divorce re: Ritzi, I figured the reason her husband hadn't divorced her was the difficulty in getting a divorce. I believe it was 1931 in which Nevada opened up the 'easy' divorce but it strikes me that Ritzi's husband couldn't afford it, etc. Additionally, given the fast reconciliation, it gave me he impression he hadn't fallen out of love with her. I actually imagined a rather robust backstory -- she was young, he was smitten, she fled and later regretted he, he still loved her that whole time, etc etc -- so it didn't feel so ... unreal ... for me. (then again, I'm v imaginative.)

    1. We all offer such varied perspectives! Love your insights provided the additional information about Joe serving as Stella's divorce lawyer. That really makes me wonder... I hear you about divorce and money...I rather assume the same. However, I admit to being jaded regarding broken relationships...once burned (And I do mean burned! lol), very definitely twice shy, as they say. Just my personal life experience sneaking in there! I agree that your "happily ever after" scenario is a nice touch! :) Thanks for stopping by!