Sunday, February 12, 2017

Literary Wives #25

Though this review was almost completed on  
Monday, February 6, I was unable to get it finished 
and posted until almost a whole week later. 
Considering my battle with disconnectedness 
and depression lately, 
I am proud to have (1) read the book by the due date, 
and (2) reviewed the book, even if later than planned.
Now, hopefully, tomorrow I'll have finally completed 
and posted my review of the 
Literary Wives #24 read as well! 
(That didn't happen yet either!) 😩
That is no reflection of my enjoyment of Mrs. Hemingway 
by Naomi Wood, 'cause I found it fascinating!
But back to LW #25! 

This is the first Meg Wolitzer book I have read...
but I certainly do not plan for it to be my last! 
I always felt that I would like her books, 
and if this one is any indication, 
I was correct! 

And a perfect selection to discuss the role and meaning of "wife"! 
This is what we do in the 
Literary Wives Online Book Discussion Group! 

Make sure you check out the other Literary Wives cohosts' reviews:

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J
Naomi of Consumed by Ink
Kay of whatmeread
I believe Ariel of One Little Library and Kate of Kate Rae Davis took a break on this one! 

I read books like this about women who are totally controlled by their husbands and immediately start thinking about how I would NEVER allow myself to be manipulated and exploited in such a way...and then I get real. 😏 I remember that I myself stayed in a marriage for 12 more years after I realized I was totally unhappy! Ah, as much as I would like to think I would NEVER allow myself to be put in some of these marriage situations, then I realize I was in a marriage situation I would have NEVER imagined myself to be in...let alone remain in...for so long. So my point is that I guess we never really know for sure in which situations we may find ourselves...or how we may react, until we're there! I am also reminded of another book I just finished reading, An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. I'm sure Mireille never imagined she would ever be accosted in such ways, let alone that she could survive such travails, but she did... Though Joan's situation is much different, she is still in a situation she would have never imagined for herself. And she somehow copes.

As a Smith college student in English 202--Elements of Creative Writing class, Joan and 11 other students wait for the instructor to arrive...and finally, 17 minutes after the class period was to begin, he does, explaining that his wife had just given birth to their first child. Joan's imagination immediately takes flight...
I imagined him ten years old, trapped inside the cylinder of an iron lung, 
lying with only his head sticking out, while a kindly nurse read to him from Oliver Twist. 
The image was pitiful, made me almost want to cry for the poor boy whom 
I was starting to confuse, in my mind, with the character of Oliver Twist himself. 
I felt an uncomplicated love for Professor Castleman, and even a kind of love for 
his wife and tiny baby, the three points that made up this delicate Castleman constellation. (45)
Speaking of constellations...does this 19-year-old girl have an imagination, or what?!? Yet, somehow Joan believes her life only begins once she has an altercation with "Mrs. Castleman" months later...seems Carol wasn't all too keen on her husband having sex with "the babysitter"/Joan. And, amazingly, 'walnuts' are one of the connective themes throughout the first 75 pages of the book! I admit it was about at this point that I became a tiny bit bored, but it definitely picked up afterward! I felt rewarded for having persevered beyond those first 75 pages!

I liked the way Wolitzer takes us back and forth from Helsinki to flashbacks of Joan and Joe and their life together, and though we don't get much detail about their children, I think we get enough. Their only son and youngest child, David, is actually a rather troubled soul who has never seemed to find himself. Though we discover much later that David more than 'suspects' the truth of his mother and father's relationship, especially with regard to work/writing, and it rattles him to his core. 
But still we loved him. We loved them all, Joe and I, though not quite together. 
The children received two separate channels of love, one from me, a reasonably steady flow,
and one from their father whenever he thought of it, whenever he could manage 
to turn away from himself. He was distracted so much of the time, caught up in the details 
of his professional life and all the accolades that kept accumulating like inches of snowfall.
The children and I simply watched as Joe's career grew and grew. (77)
Though Joan and Joe both lie to their children to the bitter end, I'm sure the undercurrent of lies and deceit were palpable in their household. How could they not be? I could much better understand Joe's ability to seemingly never truly "connect" with anyone on a deeper level. It definitely felt as if his relationships were all fairly shallow. And that last line of this quote...makes me grit my teeth now that I've read the whole book and know the truth! 

Joe and Joan have been married over 40 years when he finally wins a large international literary prize, the Helsinki Prize, which Wolitzer describes as somewhat less than the Pulitzer or Nobel, but up there, definitely a recognition pinnacle for his lifelong contribution to literature. Flying to Helsinki, Joan muses about her husband:
He was Joseph Castleman, 
one of those men who own the world. 
You know the type I mean...They own everything...
There are many varieties of this kind of man:
Joe was the writer version, a short, wound-up, 
slack-bellied novelist who almost never slept, 
who loved to consume runny cheeses and whiskey and wine, all of which he used as a vessel 
to carry the pills that kept his blood lipids from congealing like yesterday's pan drippings, 
who was as entertaining as anyone I have ever known, who had no idea of how to 
take care of himself or anyone else, and who derived much of his style from 
The Dylan Thomas Handbook of Personal Hygiene and Etiquette. (11)
They are in their 60's and suddenly, Joan realizes that she is ending this marriage. She'll get through this event in Helsinki, but she wants to start life on her own afterward. No more Joe in her daily life. I could relate to her feelings, even before I knew the real truth of their relationship...and the main source of her underlying resentment.

Joe represented an anomaly among writers for his time, 
as his friend Harry, a poet, states:
"You mix in all this feminism, if you want to call it that--
even though it always makes me think of dykes with chain saws. 
You're an original, Joe! A great writer who isn't a total prick. 
You, you're fifty percent prick, fifty percent pussy." (25)
As I reread this sentence now, it is much more meaningful 
to me, having read the book all the way through! If only 
you knew the truth, Harry...if only! 😲 And no wonder 
Joe absolutely refused poor Nathaniel Bone's offer to 
write an authorized biography of the man...again, 
as I finished the book I could understand the
impossibility of such a project.

And for the Literary Wives question: 
What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
Joan freely admits to generally drinking too much at these award dinners/events, and once when the children are a bit older and accompany them to one of these events, she and one of her daughters are outside the facility, Joan apologizing to her daughter, when the girl says,
"If you're so miserable,...then why don't you leave him, Mom?"

Oh, my darling girl, I might have said, what a good question. 
In her worldview, bad marriaes were simply terminated, like unwanted pregnancies. 
She knew nothing about this subculture of women who stayed, women who couldn't logically explain their allegiances, who held tight because it was the thing they felt most comfortable doing,
                          the thing they actually liked. (82)
Although I felt this was definitely a greatly over-simplified vision of Joan's life as Joe's wife. I believe their marriage/relationship was much more complex than most, And there is a certain truth to the fact that some women just STAY! What may seem so obvious to outsiders, may never be the way the "wife" understands her relationship.  

There are glimpses of the prejudice that still existed about women writers, and especially 'successful' women, whom all these white males believed to be femi-Nazis, it would seem. Several times Joan recalls men verifying that "she wasn't one of them, was she?" Then there was the night she was the only female among a group of white males, and one of the editors from the company where she was currently working as a mere "editor's assistant" just reached out and "very lightly stroked the soft skin of [her] forearm with his fingers." Her response was to quickly jerk away and say, "Don't!" His reply? "Sorry...It was just irresistible."
"Hey, Bob," said Joe in a vague and muzzled voice. "Did you see the sign? 'No touching.'" 
I knew then that Joe had been made aware for the first time what it might feel like to sit outnumbered among the mutterings of men. It was as though he'd been given a rare glimpse 
into what a woman felt and thought. (105)
Though I don't know that it changed him much overall.. And really, I felt this could have been much more a comment regarding 'ownership' of a woman between males, rather than a defense of Joan as a person...
I had no idea who could love a show-off woman writer. 
What sort of man would stay with her and not be threatened by 
her excesses, her rage, her spirit, her skill? (132)
But...isn't this exactly what a "wife" endured from these temperamental male writers? And really, Joe wasn't who he was pretending to be anyway...

Joan WAS my kind of woman in some ways. She didn't shy away from talking with the men. In musing over the fact that most woman wanted to leave after an event, but not so the men...
What do women so often want to go and men want to stay? 
If you leave, then you can preserve yourself better. 
But if you stay, then essentially you're saying: 
I'm immortal, I don't need to sleep or rest or eat or take a breath. (121)
Ah, yes, the need to be 'invincible.' Nothing can permeate or affect you...'cause you're a man...and you are tough!! This reminded me of Hadley's comment regarding Ernest in Naomi Wood's Mrs. Hemingway; they must always perpetrate a pretense of never having really to work at writing/creating! Joan continues: 
Joe wanted me beside him. He needed me there with him before a reading, 
and during it, and after it was over. (121)
Again, after having read the book, this statement held a much deeper meaning! Yes, I can imagine he did want her there, for all of that...

Joan had not only reached a point of needing to end this sham of a 'marriage,' but she had also decided to meet with Nathaniel Bone and give him details regarding Joe that he could use to write about the man. I wonder so often in the aftermath of having read this book if she really would have betrayed Joe in that way. But we will never know. She certainly refused to do so after his death. I admit I wondered how much of her motivation to retain the pretense of authorship was due to the attitudes of others toward 'women writers,' and how much was due to loyalty. And honestly, would society have believed her overall? Especially once Joe was no longer alive to confirm or deny?

Everyone knows how women soldier on, how women dream up blueprints, recipes, 
ideas for a better world, and then sometimes lose them on the way to the crib 
in the middle of the night, on the way to Stop & Shop, or the bath. 
They lose them on the way to greasing the path on which their husband and children 
will ride serenely through life. (183)
Women can be just as powerful and creative, but they're often mired down in the daily duties and routines, especially with regard to child-rearing, that most men, at least in the past, have totally avoided. (I feel as if this is finally changing for the better, however!) This is reminiscent of a recent conversation I had with a friend. I was raised in a household of women, and when young just assumed that it was males (white ones, of course!) who truly made all the decisions and made the 'world run,' so to speak. I had definitely bought into the patriarchal society myths that males were all powerful. (Well, so had my mother...though she was a divorced single parent! The irony...) Then I raised three sons and lived with them and my first husband/their biological father for 22 years...and realized women were actually the organizers and achievers overall. The majority of men lack those skills, in my was quite eye-opening for me! And I purposefully tried my best to raise my sons to be more androgynous than their father and learn some of these more 'female' skills and characteristics. I firmly believe all children should be raised with the same expectations, be they 'male' or 'female.' 

As Joan eventually states, 
Everyone needs a wife; even wives need wives. Wives tend, they hover. 
Their ears are twin sensitive instruments picking up the slightest scrape of dissatisfaction. 
Wives bring broth, we bring paper clips, we bring ourselves and our pliant bodies. 
We know just what to say to the men who for some reason have a great deal of trouble 
taking consistent care of themselves or anyone else.
"Listen," we say, "Everything will be okay."
And then, as if our lives depend on it, we make sure it is. (184)
I think this has been true for ever and ever. Though, as I watch my own children in their relationships, they are not 'typical males' for the most part. I contend that much of that is due to "expectations," both by their parent(s), spouses, and of society overall. I do believe men are expected to be capable of 'female' characteristics now much more so than in the past. And this is a good thing. Just as females should be taught it's okay to be competitive and strong. Each child should be raised to fully realize her/his potential! 

In speaking of Joe's infidelity:
I ignored it whenever I could. It never occurred to me to say, 
Okay, here's your part of the deal: Control yourself.
...But they can't, these men, can they? Or can they, and we simply don't require them to? (205)
Ah, and there is the age-old question. Though I do believe that overall there is more pressure on males to remain faithful to their spouses, it is the spouse who must set the expectation and stick to it, in my humble opinion, at least! As I have mentioned before, this is a major requirement for me in an intimate relationship. If I'm faithful, you should be, too. And frankly, I've never had a problem with that myself. It is a choice, in my opinion. 

I'd been a good wife, most of the time. Joe had been comfortable and safe and surrounded...
It wasn't fair of course, it had never been fair, right from the beginning. 
Fairness wasn't what I'd wanted. (213)
As Joan informs Nathaniel, the potential biographer:
"Joe was a wonderful writer," I said. "And I will always miss him." (219)

Joan reminded me of Anne Morrow Lindbergh in Benjamin's The Aviator's Wife
in that they were both long-suffering wives... 
There have been others, too. What is it about many females? 
I have read various theories, the one that makes the most sense to me is that females 
have typically been raised to be "nurturers," who are not necessarily to defend themselves.
Although I know a few males who suffer abuse in their relationships and they stay...
In my opinion, this is something that should stop. It is not healthy. 

Be sure to join us on Monday, April 3rd for our reviews and discussion of 
Therese Fowler's Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald!!
I admit I am fascinated with this time period and these writers: 
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, etc.

Happy Reading


  1. You had a lot of thoughts about this book, Lynn! I am confused, though, by your comment that there is more pressure on males to remain faithful. Do you mean now? I always felt their was more acceptance of males being unfaithful, even now, although not as much as before.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Kay! I did mean now, but perhaps that is in my own head! Or perhaps I base that upon my own experience in raising three sons. I hope that if I ever taught them anything, it was to remain "faithful," especially to their partner! Of course, with the recent political candidates it does seem as if the same ol' same ol' acceptance is just as prevalent and accepted as ever! :) You know, that "Boys will be boys!" attitude. Having experienced a partner "cheating," it's no fun and I personally have no tolerance for it in my own personal life. But others (I guess the Clintons come to mind.) are able to overcome such behaviors and retain their marriage/partnership.

  2. I enjoyed this book, as well! And thought it was a great selection for our group. I think you've pretty much covered everything here. One thing you bring up that I didn't is the effect of their false lives on their children. It would be interesting to hear the perspective from one or all of the children.
    And I agree with your statement that you never know what you will do in a situation until you're in it yourself. I really think that Joan was not entirely unhappy with her choices. But I'm glad that she's finally able to move on.

    1. I did think it rather ironic that she had mentally/emotionally decided she'd had it with the relationship and was going to end it, and then...she gets what she believed she wanted, though not at all in the way she had foreseen! :)