Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Literary Wives #43

War of the Wives by Tamar Cohen
Welcome to the 43rd "wifely" book review for the Literary Wives online discussion group!

Check out our Facebook page!

And PLEASE, if this interests you, 
read with us and participate in the discussions!
You can post your own review and link it to the FB page and any or all of our blogs!
Or just comment right along with us!

Please make sure you read 
the other hosting bloggers' reviews:

Naomi of Consumed by Ink
Kay of whatmeread
Eva of The Paperback Princess

I am interested as to others' reactions to this book.
I found it to be extremely compelling. 
I literally read it in one day. I simply could not put it down. 
I did not remember this was a mystery...but...bonus! :)
I not only found the mystery compelling, but the characters and their interactions were just as compelling to me as my need to know "whodunnit" if Simon did not commit suicide. 
It seemed as if every single character prompted both compassion and sympathy/empathy. 
Each character was complex, while still being relatable.
I was reminded of The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin, 
since Charles Lindbergh was also a bigamist. 
Actually, he had multiple families around the world.
Quite the "family guy," huh?
Simon was rather similar, though he only had 
two "wives" and one mistress. That we know of...
In addition to being wives, both Lottie and Selina 
were mothers to teenagers. They both had their 
challenges dealing with their children in the wake of Simon's death.

I particularly appreciated Selina and Lottie's various challenges in dealing with their children. As Lottie says:
I can understand why Mum worried so much. When your children are younger 
you think you want to raise them to make their own choices, but gradually 
you realize what you really mean is the right choices, your choices. (p 42)
I did laugh at this, because I believe it is a trap most parents fall into very easily. However, I'm sure in no small part in reaction to my own mother's overbearing and overly judgmental behaviors, I tried very hard not to expect my sons to do what I wanted them to do, but rather tried to educate them to all the possibilities their adult life presented to them. It is, after all, their life...not mine! And I refuse to try to 'live through my children'. That is so unfair and unjust. 

Dealing with my own children became trickier as they aged. As they become adults, you truly have no control and very little opportunity for meaningful input. For the most part you simply sit back and watch unless you intend to alienate them by giving your opinion(s) and/or 'lecturing' them... As Selina discusses what she wishes to say to her daughter Flora regarding her hairstyle: 
...or any of the stupid things overbearing mothers want to 
say to their grown-up daughters. (p 13)
I had to chuckle at this statement. Though it made me recall the fact that my own mother never ever hesitated to give me her opinion, no matter how rude or overbearing she may have been in doing so. (That would go a long way in describing our fraught relationship.) Likewise Lottie with her teenage daughter, Sadie, often choosing to keep her comments to herself to hopefully encourage the girl to confide in her as much as possible. As Lottie states, 
There's something about mothers and daughters, isn't there? (p 39)
Sadie was a "daddy's girl" according to Lottie. I wouldn't know about that either since I never had a father in my life. But I feel as if I would have connected better with a male since I tend to be quite androgynous in my behaviors in many ways. While I have never dealt with a daughter I know that it can be a very difficult relationship to maintain between mothers and daughters, at least from my perspective as a daughter of an extremely judgmental mother. But I digress...

I could appreciate Lottie's bemoaning the fact that her mother didn't live long enough to see just how happy she and Simon have been...
Sometimes I wonder if that's the thing you miss most when someone dies, 
not so much the person themselves as the things they'll never know about you 
and what's happened in your life. The you they'll never meet. (p 42)
As I read this I remembered a friend who stated that he felt what I missed most in the wake of my mother's death was that there would never be a chance for us to have a good relationship since she was no longer in this world. And he was correct. That is what I yearned for my whole adult life and now knew I would never have...

Selina feels "Grief has made her selfish." (p 57) This is the result of her being unable to speak with her son Josh regarding his own grief and emotions in the wake of his father's death. Though I would argue that Selina had buried her own feelings and needs for so long that she was unable to express her own emotions, let alone help her children do so. She cites the fact that "Josh has never been faced with something irreversible" (p 98) and is finding the "brutal finality" of it difficult to accept. 
When the worst that can happen has already happened, 
what can you do but start again? (p 356)

Through all this family trauma, and was there ever trauma, Cohen manages to slip in some humor, mainly through Selina. For example, as she describes the downsides of Skyping: 
     (1) you can never get away/hang up
     (2) you can see each other and that is so "intimate." 

I don't Skype but I had never considered those two factors. I'm sure that's true.  

In the end, Lottie discovers after the funeral that she is pregnant with Simon's child and it is hopeful to see Selina and her own children rally round Lottie during the pregnancy and childbirth. While looking at the new baby, Hope, in her hospital bed
[Lottie] felt that jolt of betrayal when she thought about Simon, 
but the pain had eased, and sometimes now she could remember him just as he was, without that need to eulogize or attack him. 
She could see now that he hadn't been a bad person.
He'd just been able to tuck secrets away in pockets so far inside him 
that he didn't need to see or think bout them--until it was too late. 
And he'd convinced himself that love was the thing, 
that you could forgive yourself anything if it was done for love. (p 373)
I guess that is true... I feel as if Lottie is a much more forgiving person than I, however...

The woman in the hospital bed next to Lottie's comments:
'You've a big family...Is our husband around?"
"Oh, well...You've got plenty of support from the looks of it, so who needs him, hey?
It's his funeral, at the end of the day."

Just a silly expression, so the woman couldn't really understand why her neighbor ...seemed to find it so very, very funny. (p 374)
Sometimes, unconsciously, others say things that just capture the truth in a very humorous way...

And now for that Literary Wives question:
What does this book say about wives 
or about the experience of being a wife? 
I felt this book had much to say about wives and 
the experience of being a wife.
Each of these wives, Selina and Lottie, loved Simon in their 
own way. However, they were very different people and
Simon's relationship with each wife was very different,
as depicted in the following conversation:
Simon: I know now that happiness isn't about sipping fine chianti while the sun sets over the hills. It's something else, something visceral. (p. 363)
I can't explain. I feel known by her. I feel like me... 
Selina: You're saying I stop you being who you are?
Simon: Sel...
Selina: You're wrong!...I give you the stability to go off into the world and be who you are. Stability is the thing--not love.(p. 364)
This is included at the very end of the book. We learn that Simon had actually been honest with Selina at one point in time and tried to divorce her. However, upon learning she is pregnant with their third child (a lie Selina perpetrates to keep him in the marriage), he decided to remain married to her... I admit that for me, this conversation brought back memories. 

Selina's situation of remaining in a loveless marriage was familiar to me. I remained in my first marriage for another 12 years after I decided my spouse was never going to be the parent he had claimed he would be to our three sons and I was "stuck" due to lack of financial resources. I could not see how it would be possible to raise my sons as a single mother. This was before social safety net programs to help poor folks survive were available and I'm sure I was petrified to try it, as well. So I spent 12 years never considering or evaluating my own happiness in a relationship, it was simply a means to an end--hopefully somehow being able to raise my own children to be responsible, kind, caring adults, regardless of the poor role model I felt their father portrayed.

So that paragraph above sounded rather familiar to me. I don't know if I would have lied to Simon to keep him or not, but perhaps I would have done the exact same thing as Selina. I'm not sure Selina was the type of person capable of forming a truly 'passionate' relationship. She seemed rather cold and distant, though she was phenomenal at organizing her life to keep current on all tasks and provide everything to be expected of a wife and 'good' mother, particularly one whose husband is stationed away from home at least half the time. I'm not sure we can ever know how we might react to any given situation until we are in it ourselves. 

Selina is very proud of the fact that she and Simon do not feel the need to talk to each other all the time, or even every single day. In describing her best friends' relationship:
Hettie and Ian...call each other ten times a day to talk about absolutely nothing at all...
And always finishing with an "I love you." So unnecessary. 
Love is like any other commodity. The more you flaunt it, the less value it has. 
The real trick is to make the other person feel loved... (p 19)

This made me pause. I do believe it to be true...for me, at least. However, I also realize that any two people need to construct their own relationship in ways that are meaningful to them. It is not up to me to decide what is 'good' or 'bad' in any other relationships, only to try to make my own relationships work well for me and the others involved. Is that easy? Sometimes. But certainly not all the time. There are definitely challenges and pitfalls to be overcome. But there should also be times of harmony and happiness and those need to be recalled as often as possible to help overcome the challenging bits, in my opinion.

I could particularly relate to Selina's belief that if she made all the effort to do her best to raise her children and make her marriage work as well as possible, there would be some reward. That was the same fairy tale in which I believed as I stayed in a marriage even after I had lost virtually any respect for my spouse. And even worse for her since she KNEW that Simon was no longer as invested in their relationship and really wanted out, having found another person with whom he could "feel like me." She thought if she was a 'good wife and mother' she would reap rewards. Not necessarily so, however. And, of course, Selina was all about the easy 'rich' lifestyle to which she had become accustomed, hence a further discouragement from divorcing.
                         Maybe in the end we all settle, just to be left with nothing. (p 280)

Unbeknownst to Selina, Simon decided to "marry" this 'other woman', Lottie. So although Selina lied to Simon so he would not divorce her, she did know he was in a relationship with another woman at that time. What she didn't know was that he was maintaining two families in addition to an "extramarital affair"/another sexual relationship which extended over 30 years. All I can say is, Simon evidently had an unlimited supply of energy... And I honestly wondered just how many other women he had sex with while "married." I admit to being very old-fashioned when it comes to the concept of marriage. I always wonder why men can't just keep their pants zipped and maintain a monogamous relationship. It doesn't seem that difficult to do, IMHO! It is a commitment you made, so "just do it"! (Or don't "do it," however you wish to state it. :))

According to Simon
Love is about wanting more. 
Wanting more of someone, more for someone, more life, more love. (p 355)
But as Lottie watches Karen Griffiths embrace her husband and realizes that she followed him and waited for the appropriate time to intervene, loving him regardless of his dependence upon lithium to maintain emotional balance, she felt that Simon's definition was somehow incorrect. Perhaps there was more to love than Simon's definition... Though Simon was definitely selfish with his life. He wanted what he wanted but he lacked the balls to divorce Selina so he could have a monogamous relationship with Lottie--though I feel monogamy was perhaps not an attainable goal for Simon since we know he also maintained a relationship with a third woman throughout these 30 years, albeit off and on... 

Once Selina learns there is a reasonable chance that Simon was actually murdered and did not commit suicide, she feels relieved, thinking 
Maybe I'm not such a failure as a wife, if my husband didn't choose to leave me. 
(p 320)
Uhm. Actually, he did choose to leave you years ago and you convinced him to remain by lying to him about a third pregnancy. But our memories can become selective, can't they? Again, I believe she thought she had 'played the game well' and deserved a prize/reward, rather than destitution. 

As Selina apologizes to Greg's wife (Simon's partner with whom she has been having sex) she thinks...
                                             All of us sorry. None of us safe. (p 320)
I truly wondered what Cohen meant by this statement. Perhaps we are all 'sorry' for people wronged? Yet we know we can become a victim at any time? I thought it a rather ominous thought.

So what exactly is love? And does that lead to other feelings such as commitment that overtake passionate feelings or even hopes and desires? I believe it is different for different people, just as Lottie and Selina obviously provided very different experiences in a marriage for Simon, so do each of us provide "unique-to-us" experiences for our own partners. 

Happy reading!

This is the next book we will review 
on Monday, June 1st! 

My first Ann Patchett!

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Literary Wives #42

The Home-Maker
by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Actually, one of my favorite reads for this year!
This is one of my classic literary favorites! 
I had never read any of this writer's works before, but I will definitely read more!
I love the cover image depicted here. This is a Persephone reprint I ordered months ago. 
If you are not familiar with this UK company, please follow the link to learn more.
I love their books: the paper used, the cover formatting, etc. 
I find their pricing reasonable considering the quality of materials and their purpose--
Per The Guardian: "A unique publishing house that champions forgotten female authors."
I'm not sure exactly how "forgotten" Fisher may have been since there is the 
Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award selected by 4th - 8th graders each year.
Though I admit I was unfamiliar with her.

Welcome to the 42nd "wifely" book review for the Literary Wives online discussion group!

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And PLEASE, if this interests you, 
read with us and participate in the discussions!
You can post your own review and link it to the FB page and any or all of our blogs!
Or just comment right along with us!

Please make sure you read 
the other hosting bloggers' reviews:

Naomi of Consumed by Ink

This book was released in 1924, but the issues depicted are still relevant in today's society. 
Which is sad...just plain sad. 
Although overall I believe U.S. society is becoming much more accepting of 
non-traditional roles, especially within families, the stigma still exists very strongly.
Whether we are discussing two same-sex partners or a heterosexual couple who play 'reverse roles' within the family, or single parents, anything other than a "traditional" arrangement (male father, female mother), there are still way too many people in this country who view such family units as "unnatural," even "immoral." 
Each person and each partnership is unique. My recommendation? Live and let live. 
It makes for a much happier, more contented life.
But, back to this book!

According to Karen Knox in the preface, 
Dorothy Canfield Fisher published eleven novels between 1907 and 1939: 
all of them illustrate her conviction that it is inner, personal change that makes the most difference in the lives of human beings rather than changes in external circumstances. (viii)
And it is exactly this that I most appreciated about this book! Especially with regard to Stephen, the youngest and most ill-behaved of the three Knapp children. Though we also get 'inside the heads' of the other two older children, Henry and Helen, it is Stephen of whom we learn the most. 

In Part One we learn of the wife, Evangeline's/Eva's, thoughts and behaviors during daily life. It is not good! I could connect directly with Eva in several ways... As the one person in the family to be relied upon...seemingly for everything! It was that way for me when raising children. Though at least Lester worked! Not so with the father of my children... She suffered from eczema, just as I did from ages 6-9. For me, it was simply a result of my mother's own anxious behaviors and actions toward me inducing these symptoms. It was quite unpleasant. I realized from the beginning Eva was inadvertently/unconsciously doing this to herself. And finally how I, like her, did everything 'from scratch' to save money and make a healthier home environment for the family. Though obviously it wasn't healthier for her. Unfortunately, Eva shared many personality characteristics with my own mother: perfectionism, anxiety over every little detail...of everything, and constant worry of what others thought...of both herself and me. Though my mother also excelled in criticizing every-body for every-thing, making for a very negative environment--I didn't get the impression Eva did that as she was too busy criticizing each and every little move her children and husband did or did not make! 

Lester's personality is also depicted in Part One. We learn he is suffering from constant indigestion, especially intense immediately after eating. I recognized this as a result Eva's constant 'vigilance'/criticism, although she made it a point to "never criticize their father before the children." Her silences made her disapproval quite clear to everyone, especially to Lester. They weren't even allowed to eat supper in peace but Eva was salting Helen's potatoes right on her plate until they suited Eva, and Stephen was told to take smaller mouthfuls, until eventually Eva states
I know I keep at the children all the time! But how can I help it? 
They've got to learn, haven't they? It certainly is no pleasure to me to do it!
Somebody's got to bring them up! (22)
After supper one night she congratulates herself on never making "scenes" and never having "lost her self-control" until a "terrifying but really unavoidable breakdown" one night. Eva complains to herself that there were
...moments in a mother's life about which nobody ever warned you,...moments of arid clear sight when you saw helplessly that your children would never measure up to your standard, 
never would be really close to you, because they were not your kind of human beings,...but 
merely other human beings for whom you were responsible. How solitary it made you feel! (36)

Henry suffers from nausea and vomiting, which bouts appear to be a direct result of Eva's anger regarding anything that messes up her perfectly clean house! We learn that Helen is rather puny, often suffering from a cold. Eva actually corrects Helen's wringing out of the wash rags by redoing it and rehanging them in a 'perfect' fashion to dry. She constantly corrects and reminds the children how to do every single little thing in their life! How to walk. How to take off their shoes. How to place their shoes on the floor. They can't get more than a few feet into the house without being told how to do 3-4 different things! It's a wonder these people are still functioning at all. Though we can see they are about at a breaking point. Especially poor little Stephen who is still a preschooler and under his mother's thumb each and every minute of each and every day. Poor little guy...

As the book opens we see Eva scrubbing away all afternoon on the grease spots Henry has left on the kitchen floor by tipping the meat tray as he brought it into the kitchen from the dining room after supper the evening before. She is angry as hell about this! Then she notices Stephen is missing. She begins to hunt for him, getting angrier all the time, as the bucket of cleaning water in the kitchen cools while she hunts in every imaginable spot for her youngest child, who, we learn, is purposefully hiding from her! It's due to his Teddy-bear, which he has just discovered poorly hidden in a drawer in his/his parents' bedroom. (Due to limited space in their house, Stephen sleeps on a cot in Eva and Lester's bedroom.) Eva had confiscated it during the night until she had the opportunity to wash it. But Stephen had seen the results of a 'washed' Teddy-bear and it wasn't good... To Stephen 
...Teddy meant quiet and rest and safety...and Stephen needed all he could get of those elements 
in his stormy little life, made up, so much of it, 
of fierce struggles against forces stronger than he. (11)

He would hold Teddy in his arms as long as he could, and hide, and let Mother call to him all she wanted to, while he braced himself to endure with courage the tortures that would inevitably follow...the scolding which mother called 'talking to him', the beating invisible waves of fury flaming at him from all over Mother, which made Stephen suffer more than 
the physical blows which always ended things, for by the time they arrived 
he was usually so rigid with hysteria himself that he did not feel them much.
Under the stairs...she would not think of that for a long time. 
He crept in over the immaculately clean floor, drew the curtains back of him, sat upright, 
cross-legged, holding Teddy to his breast with all his might, dry-eyed, scowling, 
a magnificent sulphurous conflagration of Promethean flames blazing in his little heart. (14-15)
This passage! Those descriptors! I read that passage several times just because...it was so powerful! I could easily picture Stephen...

As Stephen walks about the bedroom "drawing long breaths" he notes that 
The bed, the floor, the bureau, everything looked different to you in the times when 
Mother forgot about you for a minute. It occurred to Stephen that maybe it was a rest to them, 
too, to have Mother forget about them and stop dusting and polishing and pushing them around. They looked sort of peaceful, the way he felt. 
He nodded his head to the bed and looked with sympathy at the bureau. (11)
Eva created so much tension that nobody could be healthy in the environment she created! It struck me yet again that if my mother and I had not lived with my grandmother so that she was my main caregiver, my daily life would have been so much worse! My mother would have been just as bad (or maybe even worse?) than Eva. I had been lucky in that regard. Not so for Stephen! Until...

Lester despairs after having been fired from his job at the local department store and purposefully throws himself off his neighbor's icy roof as he ostensibly hauls water to try to extinguish a fire. His thought was to provide for Eva and the children via the life insurance money they would have as a result of his death. But as he later bemoans, he can't even cause his own death, but rather simply causes his legs to be useless in the aftermath. The medical prognosis is that he may be able to regain use with time, but there are no guarantees. 

Part Two depicts Jerome and Nell Willing, the two new co-owners of the local department store, inherited from Jerome's uncle who owned and managed it for many years. They are both college-educated with experience working in retail institutions and are determined to build this small-town store into a much more economically efficient machine. All for the good of the local/rural folks, of course! [Wink! Wink!] The fact that they would have more money is viewed simply as a bonus to the changes and expansion they have planned. They debate the need for a store manager to free Jerome to complete buying trips. If only they knew someone who would be capable and yet personable with customers... 

And you guessed it! Three weeks after returning the Willings' check for $100 sent to her immediately following Lester's accident, Eva enters the store to ask for a job. Jerome has a practiced interviewing technique and recognizes what he feels is her natural affinity, knowledge, and pertinent skills set to work in retail. After all, her father owned and managed his own store in which she worked as a child/teen, so she also has on-the-job experience. It is many of those same skills that have worked to drive her children and husband to physical ailments as well as create an environment of nearly unbearable  psychological stress for them. It isn't that Eva isn't a devoted "home-maker" or that she doesn't love each member of her family, it is just her emphasis on perfection with no regard for others' feelings or respect in the wake of her unrealistic expectations. 

As you might well have also guessed, Eva excels at the store and is immediately promoted from stock girl to seller. She even takes notes in the evenings of her ideas/plans for work. Eva actually learns to overlook a 'less than perfectly' clean house when she is home. Her earnings allow them to hire a housekeeper who cleans once a week to prevent Eva from spending her leisure time working constantly in the house. (Per doctor's orders.) And then Miss Flynn, the department manager resigns and Eva is promoted and earning even more money than Lester ever made or ever thought he would be capable of making at the same store. Of course, Jerome and Nell plan to groom Eva to become the store manager they had foreseen needing. She fits in beautifully with their own management philosophy.

This book has prompted me to relate plot details to a much greater degree than I usually do, but I feel it is very important to truly understanding the ramifications to each character in the book. Part Three depicts the astounding affect that Lester has on his children as he takes over as a true "home-maker" (not just "housekeeper") by cooking and caring for the children. Due to his physical limitations he is unable to accomplish much cleaning, but the children pitch in as they can. Friends and neighbors help as well. We learn Lester had befriended and helped quite a few people in town who were more than happy to return the favor in his hour of need. Lester provides to the children what Eva was unable to provide: patience, caring, and respect. She was very efficient in the pragmatic tasks of "house-keeping," but quite lacking in creating a nurturing, gentle, and kind environment. It is this section I liked best. Fisher does a very believable job of recreating how I would imagine these children might feel as they are freed to become themselves and develop their own interests and skills while experiencing a supportive relationship with their father. 
And now for the Literary Wives portion 
of the review! 

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

One of my first observations is that finally we have 
a book which does not have a philandering male 
as the "husband." I appreciate that! 

I admit that I was disappointed in all these 
characters in Part Four which deals with the 
fact that Eva and Lester both realize he has 
regained control of his legs and 
could walk if he chose to do so. 
However, rather than creating joy, 
this realization creates much more stress
for each of them as they consider the ramifications.
An able-bodied male remaining at home as a "home-maker" while his wife works to provide income to support the family was just not feasible, according to Eva. She refuses to even consider this due to the social stigma of such an arrangement. Lester's refusal is based upon the benefits he now realizes he provides to his children, and the fact that Eva is much happier and more fulfilled by working outside the home than she ever was being a "home-maker." Though I would argue she was a "house-keeper" much more than a "home-maker," as distinguished by the title, which, according to Elaine Showalter's afterword, 
...clearly signaled [Dorothy Canfield Fisher's] subject and her educational mission...
Calling someone a "home-maker" rather than a 'house-keeper' 
implies more importance, authority, and creativity. (269)
Although I had never thought of these two words in this way, I can recognize the underlying logic. It is stated multiple times in the book that being a wife instantly meant you were the home-maker, the patient caregiver, the nurturer. 
That complacent unquestioned generalisation, 'The mother is the natural home-maker' (257)
Proved to not always be true! Just being born 'female' or just being in the designated 'working-at-home' role doesn't automatically mean you have these skills. I knew a woman who was a "stay-at-home" mom but her children literally lived with her parents until they started school and since her parents' home lay outside their home school district, they would stay with their parents Monday-Friday and spend weekends and all vacations at their grandparents' house. So just being at home all the time doesn't mean you are parenting, or necessarily an effective parent. Each of us is different, regardless of our role or gender. 

Likewise, Lester feels himself to be a complete and total failure since 
he had long ago seen that he was incapable of giving to Eva and the children anything that anybody in the world would consider worth having. The only thing he was supposed 
to give them was money, and he couldn't make that. (68)
So we see very distinct roles set by society for a woman as a wife and a man as a husband. One is to be at home caring for the house and children and the other is to earn sufficient income to support them all. However, if it weren't for Lester becoming the "home-maker," no one would have realized the trauma Stephen underwent regarding his Teddy-bear. 
What was terrifying to Lester was the thought that the conception of 
trying to understand Stephen's point of view had been 
as remote from their minds as the existence of the fourth dimension. (145)
I can understand being so busy as a parent that you overlook and/or are oblivious to some aspects of your children's psychological needs. It is sad when that happens. It was this realization that awoke in him a "desire to get well, to live again."

Fisher addresses the issue of consumerism as she describes Jerome Willing's "notion of being a good business-man" was to exploit women by "play[ing] for his own purposes on a weakness of theirs only too tragically exaggerated already, their love for buying things." (That stereotype of a women always shopping/buying things!) He tried to ignore the fact that, in his opinion, Eva was doing the exact same thing. And although there is a strong emphasis on the rights of children to have love, security, and unconditional positive regard/respect, Fisher also points out that with the extra income from Eva's work, they would be able to save for their children's college education and provide more for their children. As Eva states,
She felt an impulsive longing to share her emotion with Lester, to put her arms 
about his neck and let him know that she did not take his loyalty, his gentleness, 
his faithfulness, his fineness, so coldly for granted as she had seemed.
She had been unhappy about their hideous poverty. That was all. It was abominable to be poor! 
It brought out the worst in everyone. When you were distracted with worry about money, 
you simply weren't yourself. (236)
I do believe finances are at the heart of many relationship break-ups. Statistics do prove that out. 

As Lester considers the possibility of both he and Eva working he muses over the possibility of hiring someone to care for the children:
...it was conceivable that by paying a high cash price you might be able to hire a little intelligence, 
enough intelligence to give them good material care. 
But you could never hire intelligence sharpened by love. 
In other words, you could not hire a parent.
And children without parents were orphans. (255)
As Lester contemplates the possibility of him being able-bodied once again, 
...the fanatic feminists were right, after all. Under its greasy camouflage of chivalry, 
society is really based on a contempt for women's work in the home. 
The only women who were paid, either in human respect or money, 
were women who gave up their traditional job of creating harmony out of human relationships 
and did something really useful, bought or sold or created material objects. (260)
It is true. You are paid nothing to be a full-time parent. But there is great satisfaction in knowing that you gave it 1000% when they were young and dependent. My finances as an older adult reflect the fact that I did not work outside my home for 13 years while raising my children, but I wouldn't trade the experiences with and insights into my children gained over those years for anything. 

I can imagine this was quite a groundbreaking work when released in 1924. 
Unfortunately, I fear we still have a long way to go before this changes significantly. 
But I do believe progress has been made and more and more people are learning to 
not only accept and respect, but also appreciate alternative family units to the 
"traditional" male-income-earner-husband and female-"home-maker'-mother model. 

Up next for Literary Wives:

The War of the Wives by Tamar Cohen

Join us March 2, 2020

Monday, August 5, 2019

Literary Wives #40

Ties by Domenico Starnone 
translated by Jhumpa Lahiri
Welcome to the 40th "wifely" book review for the Literary Wives online discussion group!

Check out our Facebook page!

And PLEASE, if this interests you, 
read with us and participate in the discussions!
You can post your own review and link it to the FB page and any or all of our blogs!
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Naomi of Consumed by Ink

I will mention that I highly recommend reading Jhumpa Lahiri's introduction to this book. I loved the background she gave to her familiarity with this book and her knowledge of the Italian language. She gives a general outline of the book's organization as she views it and also some insight to her word choices as she translated. 

I was fascinated by this cover image. And now that I've read the book, I believe I "get it." Since their father has been out of their life for several years, it is important to Anna (the younger child and only daughter) to determine whether it was their father who taught her brother (the elder child and only son) Sandro to tie his shoelaces, since he does it in a different way than Anna and her mother, Vanda. As Sandro tells Anna,
This story about the laces involves all of us. Dad came back for Mom, for me, for you.
And the three of us wanted him to come back. Get it? (135)
Honestly, I'm not sure I get it! I guess Sandro's point is that Aldo didn't return to his family due to any one of them, but for all three of them. Though we learn he never truly returned in heart, only in physical presence and providing financial support. Once Vanda believed that Aldo had finally returned to his family to stay, the wedding band that she had once thrown across the room onto the floor during an argument with Aldo, who was  estranged at the time, reappeared on her finger.
It meant: I feel tied to you again, what about you?
The mute question had the new imperative tone, it demanded an immediate reply, silent or blaring.
I resisted for a few days, but I saw that she was turning the ring around her finger in an increasingly anxious way. (108)
So, although Aldo had at some point in the past cut his own wedding band off his finger, as he later admitted, symbolically cutting Vanda out of his life, he now relented and had a jeweler make a gold wedding band for him, engraved with the date of their reconciliation. 
Neither of us said anything. But in spite of the ring I had a lover 
almost immediately--three months after I came back home--and I've been 
stubbornly unfaithful up until a few years ago. (108) 
They are now in their seventies. All I could think was how awful that must have been. For him. For her. And especially for their children. You think children don't know, but I'm convinced they usually do, unless you do an extremely conscientious job of pretending. 

As I learned some 10 years after my own divorce, my youngest son, who was 16 and still living  at home when I finally split from his father--my children were clueless. At least as far as my reasons for divorcing their father. I admit I can't believe they were not aware of the tension between us, but in effect, I am glad that they weren't. I knew I kept my mouth shut around them and only spoke to a couple of very close friends (as well as several different therapists!) of my unhappiness and dissatisfaction in the marriage. It took me two long-ass years to save every dime needed to file for divorce, but I was determined to pay for it myself...because, believe me...it WAS personal!! And I wanted him to know that. I wanted out at 10 years in and lasted another 12 before I could finally end it. I do believe many marriages would end much sooner if more women were financially secure, enough to support themselves and their children. Vanda was much the same. She began working at whatever job she could find and had to move due to not being able to afford to remain in the same house during those four years Aldo lived elsewhere. That was what kept me in my marriage, even though we rarely had enough money for living expenses, I only had two years of college completed and hadn't worked outside the home in 13 years, and I had no other financial resources as backup. And there were virtually no social safety net programs for people in such situations at the time. I did manage to complete my degree and then started working. I figured it was way past time that one of us did! ;) But enough about me...back to Vanda and Aldo.

From the crisis of many years ago we have both learned that we need to hide a great deal from each other, and tell each other even less. It's worked. (108)
I admit I kinda chuckled at Aldo calling his abandonment of his wife and children a "crisis"! I guess that's what he considered it to be, but naturally Vanda felt differently about it all. I did appreciate Starnone's organization of the book. We first read Vanda's version of their relationship, then we read Aldo's version of those same years. And boy, do we ever get two different versions, just as I'm sure would be true for any such two people in a relationship. Then finally, we have the two children, Sandro and Anna, who give the reader a summary of their own feelings, about each other, and their parents, particularly with regard to their marriage. I found this last perspective from the children to be the scariest. In some respects it would seem that we just have no idea as we "parent" through the daily routine of life exactly how we are affecting our own children. And although one parent, such as Vanda did,  can represent a positive role model, the dysfunctional truth of the relationship overall is typically revealed to the children. Though they may not realize it themselves, their actions and behaviors could very well depict their own emotional trauma as they enter and continue through adulthood. That seemed to be the case for Sandro and Anna. I did have to chuckle at the way each of them could easily "analyze" the other. It is always most difficult to objectively analyze our own behaviors, isn't it? 

We are here to answer 
the Literary Wives question: 

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

Yet once again we have a heterosexual female who is committed to her relationship with a spouse and the biological father of her children, but he cannot stand the monotony and practical routines of childcare, working for a living, and having sex with the same woman for many many years. So, of course, he has a "crisis" and decides he must abandon his wife and children for a younger single woman. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? 

I sometimes wonder if that ol' biological "instinct" for males to go plant their seed to increase the population of the tribe as much as possible is still active and well... It certainly seems to be the case. 

Vanda writes a series of letters to Aldo during his four-year absence and it is her story we get first. I love how her first letter begins:
In case it's slipped your mind, Dear Sir, let me remind you: I am your wife. 
I know that this once pleased you and that now, suddenly, it chafes. (23)
I love the visualization prompted by the word "chafe"! That is such an ugly and uncomfortable feeling! I could so readily relate to Vanda's feeling that this had happened so suddenly. That was exactly how I felt... It is an unreal feeling, just as if you were plopped down in the middle of a strange planet with no knowledge of the beings, their culture, etc. For me, it was totally disorienting. I felt much the same as Vanda. Although my ex-husband didn't take off and abandon us, it felt much as if he had. (I think even he was smart enough to realize I would probably hunt him down and shoot him if he did! :))

I did chuckle as I read the remainder of her first letter to Aldo:
I bet she was the one who kissed you first. I know you're incapable of making the first move, 
either they reel you in or you don't budge. (24)
Exactly! So many men are truly 'gutless wonders', in my experience. One thing my ex did say several times: "Women are the ones who truly get things done. If not for them, men would be lost." (Yes, he did have some sense on occasion...) Though this is certainly not ALWAYS true, it seems to hold up much more often than not. And her use of the plural pronoun they seemed to be quite telling, indicating to me that she was well aware this woman was not the first with whom Aldo had had sex with during their marriage of 12 years. Even if you are uncertain, as I was, I immediately told myself it didn't matter--I knew of ONE and ONE was enough! 

Do you want to know what I think?
I think you have yet to realize what you've done to me. It's as if you've stuck your hand down my throat and pulled, pulled, pulled to the point of ripping my heart out, don't you get it? (24)
As I read this, I said aloud, "No, he doesn't. He doesn't 'get it' and he doesn't care...about you or your children, or even that he doesn't 'get it'!"

Aldo explained that his "parents' miserable marriage ruined [his] childhood." I did cringe at Vanda's memory of his description of abuse:
...you said that your father had wrapped barbed wire around your mother, and that every time 
you saw a sharp clump of iron pierce her flesh you suffered. (25)
I admit I cringed upon reading this description. And hell yes! Of course that child would suffer, and probably be psychologically disturbed to some degree for life! But these are your wife and children, to whom you should feel a lifelong devotion and commitment! It is your opportunity to be a partner and parent in a very different way than your father evidently did. To set a good example and be a positive role model for your own children--the exact opposite of what you evidently experienced! 

Vanda continues to describe his machinations in stating how "imprisoned" they were by their marriage and parenting roles, and finally...
It dawned on me somewhat late that you were trying to be helpful. 
You wanted to make me realize that, by destroying the life we shared, you were in fact 
freeing me and the children, and that we should be grateful for your generosity. 
Oh, thank you, how kind of you. 
And you were offended because I threw you out of the house? (25)
What a magnanimous gesture! Right?!? So his rationale was that he would get out of the marriage/parenting role before he could turn into the physical (and I'm sure mental/emotional) abuser his father had been. You know...if he left, it would keep them safe from him... All that sounds good, doesn't it?!? Not to me, but maybe someone would believe such bullshit. 

I could definitely understand Vanda's fears that Aldo will turn their children and others against her...
You want to isolate me, to cut me out completely. And...you want to avoid 
every attempt to reexamine our relationship. This is driving me crazy. 
I, unlike you, need to know; it's crucial that you tell me, point by point, why you've left. 
If you still consider me a human being and not an animal to ward off with a stick, 
you owe me an explanation, and it had better be a decent one. (29)
I admit that some of these same thoughts went through my head, too. I wondered if he would try to turn my own children and/or others against me. But those were unnecessary worries. Everyone in my ex's own family except his mother and aunt felt it was way past time for me to have ended the marriage. Only two people were at all sympathetic toward him, even in his own family. That is sad... Though as far as I know, it didn't bother him at all, and he cut off virtually all ties he had with his family in the aftermath of the divorce. 

So exactly what does all this say about Vanda's role as a a wife? For me, the main message was that a "wife" is always stuck. She seems to be the one who is committed to the marriage as well as raising the children. She is long-suffering. However, for Vanda it is also a case of setting expectations for the future from that point forward. As Aldo notes, there is a "new imperative tone" Vanda uses with him. She is the one running the show and he is to acquiesce and do as told. I remember that same feeling once I decided to allow my ex to stay, as long as he got a job and gave me money to pay the bills such as rent, utilities, etc. That lasted two years until I could pay for a divorce. By that time he wasn't spending many nights at home anyway. Sometimes you just have to move on.

Vanda states that she married for love and then was committed to the relationship and particularly to parenting their children once they were born. She expressed incredulity that this wasn't the same for Aldo. I remember feeling the exact same thing. It was my assumption that my husband's commitment to our marriage and especially our children was the same as mine. I now realize the folly of that assumption, but just as Vanda did, I also assumed he would be there...he would remain faithful. But that was not the way it played out. I was also shell-shocked... How could anyone not carry through with their commitment? To their marriage. To their children. As I told my then-husband, for me, I disregarded the idea of "love" as a sense of commitment took over throughout the years. As Vanda states:
I believed real feelings never changed, especially in marriage. (26)
Yep! You and me both, Vanda! And we both got caught up in a situation proving our assumptions to be dead wrong. I realized that at 10 years into my marriage I had never once considered whether I was "happy" or not. How sad is that?!? My sense of commitment to marriage and parenting overrode any other considerations. Not so for others, I soon discovered...

I had always felt that "divorce" was not in my vocabulary. I had to disabuse myself of that silly notion! I worked very hard for another 10 years to try to salvage my marriage, but finally decided I could never again be happy in that relationship, especially after discovering his unfaithfulness. I am evidently not the forgiving kind when it comes to this type of situation and the resulting feelings of betrayal and abandonment. Vanda was a much more pragmatic person than I, in the end. I eventually realized I had done everything I could do and it would not work...and then I began to consider my own feelings and prioritize around them. Lesson learned! 

Vanda and Aldo were a good example of how feelings and people can change over time. And each of you must decide how you are going to handle those changes. 
Will they drive you apart? Will you work together to resolve conflict and/or
make the relationship positive for each of you once again? 
Or will you, as Aldo did, simply leave and refuse to 'work' on the relationship?
And was it a good thing for them to reunite?
It's not as if their children didn't recognize and suffer in their own ways 
from their parents' dysfunctional relationship.
That is quite obvious from their discussion and actions at the end of the book. 

If you've not read this book, I would recommend it.
It is rather short, yet dense, in my opinion.
There is much revealed in those mere 150 pages!

I am rarely ever forgiving of a spouse who is 'unfaithful'.
How about you? 

What's next for Literary Wives?
On October 7th we will discuss
Happenstance by Carol Shields

This is a very uniquely formatted book.
Two books in one, really. 
One book reads front to back and the other back to front.
This should prove interesting!

Happy reading!