Sunday, April 1, 2018

Literary Wives #32

Perhaps, just perhaps, I will actually have this book read 
AND a review posted by Monday, April 2nd! 
It is now Monday, March 5th and I am starting to read the fingers crossed
that I can finally make enough time to rejoin the other Literary Wives reviewers in April!
Be sure to check their reviews:
Naomi at Consumed By Ink
Kay at whatmeread
TJ at My Book Strings
Eva at The Paperback Princess
Kate at Kate Rae Davis
Here are my past Literary Wives reviews.

I have literally been interested in reading this book 
since I first saw mention of it. 
I believe I am always a bit fascinated by the idea of 
"boarding school," having never attended such an 
institution myself. Though I did attend summer 
residential  camps. But those were only 
one to two weeks in duration.
Perhaps those are somewhat the same? 
Camp just doesn't last nearly as long...

Here is an excerpt to read... That is the opening scene of this rather sad and depressing story. Maybe it's just me, or perhaps it is my mood at the moment, but while I found this to be a 'realistic' piece of fiction, I definitely felt it to be depressing overall. 

The first section (one half) of the book is entitled "Acrimony" and is narrated by Arthur, the second section "Expectations" is narrated by Elizabeth, and the third section containing the last 18 pages is entitled "After" and is narrated by Russell. comes my rant! I was angry during those first 137 pages of this book! Sooooo angry! Yet again, here I am reading about a middle-aged male in a position of power over female students who is not only fantasizing about one of those female student's bodies and how it would feel to have sex with her, but actually acting upon such inappropriate, unethical, and to my mind immoral thoughts! Ugh! (I was reminded of On Beauty by Zadie Smith. I did read it, but have yet to review it.)
She walks by our table...I contemplate the shape of her beneath her clothes. 
She is full-breasted, but otherwise unremarkable. This is her peak, I think, rather ungenerously. 
She will never be this beautiful again. (14)
To which I mentally respond..."and neither will you be as handsome again, asshole!"  Sheesh! And to top it all off, he is married! Has been for many years... Yuck! Why can't  authors tackle complications other than this when describing long-term committed/marital relationships?!? But...there was an end to this theme...and the narrator's reliability was unverified, so that was a relief to me! Whew! I didn't have to continue my anger throughout  the remaining 136 pages. At this point I thought I should probably reconsider my pledge to NEVER read Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov. Not because I have somehow learned to condone an adult male being "in love with" or sexually drawn to a 12-year-old female, but because I have already read of similar relationships in modern-day fiction, so why not read a classic version? Yikes! :( Though in Nabakov's book this man is also the child's step-father. Even worse!!! Okay, rant aside...

In immediate follow-up to the opening scene, one of the cops who discovers Arthur begins a conversation with him at the police station: were in the park. Naked. Twenty-degree weather. Snow on the ground. 
Walking in Central Park naked.

Is that a crime?

Yes. It is, in fact.

In Vermont it's not.


Yes. You can be naked. You just can't be obscene.

What's the difference? (7)
Admittedly, I had to kinda chuckle at this point. Is there a difference between appearing nude in public and acting 'obscene'? I guess it might be a matter of personal belief and comfort level. After all, aren't there still "nudist colonies"? I assume people in such communities would not consider nakedness obscene, but perhaps to the general population an overwhelming majority would? I can only assume so...

This book is set mainly in Vermont, as is Lancaster School, with other settings also in the northeastern U.S.There are several instances when characters are walking barefoot in the snow. This helps to conceive of the weather and landscape as a character in and of itself. At the very least it makes for an interactive 'background'. Back to the opening scene: 
Soon he is naked, and he sets off again, leaving his clothes in a neat pile on the path, 
and he moves up and over the hilly terrain, his eyes straight ahead, 
oblivious to the people who gasp when they come around a corner to find him
marching toward them. All that matters to him is the feel of his bare feet 
crunching wonderfully on the crusty snow beneath him. (5)
And Elizabeth as she is walking toward the river:
She steps onto the lawn and grins again, this time from the cold and squish 
of the soft lawn on her bare feet, surprisingly pleasant, 
and then the feel of the slightly crunchy snow at the edges as she begins to walk. (253)

The river is a recurrent theme: 
Lancaster moves forward with the force of a river and...
once someone is gone it's as if he were never there. (206)
That was her thought in referring to Russell's absence...
She wanted to belong to Lancaster more than anything, to feel the old school run through
her like a river, and who better to give her that than Arthur? (165)
At one point Arthur contemplates what it would feel like to purposefully fall into the river when it is icy cold, but Elizabeth actually does...
She raises her arms to her side and holds them out and then she closes her eyes.
Falling is the easy part, she tells herself. We think it's not, but it is. 
We are just not taught to do it...She goes up on her tippy toes. She leans foward. 
She opens her eyes and gravity does its work, and the last thing she sees is the blue sky, 
and the brown of the fields, and the water rushing toward her. She closes her eyes 
as she tumbles underneath it, instinctively holding her breath for the smallest of moments 
before allowing the river to fill her, suspend her, take her and not let go. (255)
Now that is some excellent writing, is it not? I felt as if I was falling into the river! 

It was easy for me to feel empathy for Betsy. She was definitely between a rock and a hard place, in my opinion, as she realized her true feelings for Russell and Arthur. But I admired her 'balls' in choosing and being totally honest and open with Arthur. Another reason I could relate to her is her comment, "I'm just not good at being a girl." IMHO I believe Betsy (like me) tends to communicate in a very direct and blunt manner, similar to what many might consider to be more of a 'male' way of communicating. Arthur asks her the first time they meet, "Are you always this tough?" That made me smile since my husband has expressed his amazement at the way I communicate openly and honestly, unlike most females he's known.  

Greene depicts the stereotypical political advantages associated with those students whose parents/families are large donors to private institutions. An ounce of marijuana is uncovered in a male student's room. Though drug cases "are normally a swift exit from the school," this boy happens to be "a Mellon, of the Pennsylvania Mellons," making an "easy decision complicated." Arthur admits:
When I was younger, I might have just gone by the book, but with age you come to terms 
with the fact that not everyone arrives into this world on an equal footing. 
There is no real equity at boarding school...Justice is not blind at Lancaster. 
I call the boy's father and let him know I will make an exception to the normal policy, 
but that if it happens again I will not be able to be so generous. 
The father says he understands and will have a difficult talk with Junior. 
It goes without saying that a check will arrive in the coming week. 
History says it will be significant. (22)
Yet when small bottles of liquor are discovered hidden under another male student's bed, he is expelled. The headmaster is particularly frustrated when he persists in declaring his innocence! He refuses to lie and confess to something he didn't do to supposedly remain at Lancaster school with only a punishment rather than expulsion. As you might suspect, this student happens to be the son of a plumber and secretary! No big donation to be had there in repayment for letting their son 'off the hook' for his crime. In reality both of these incidents could have been handled by the police, but that would not prevent those with money being able to 'buy' their  way 'off the hook'! In fact, the U.S. judicial system is simply an elaborate extension of such discrimination. 

In discussing parenthood with the cop, Arthur states: 
What is the only thing a parent needs to do?

I don't know.

Think about it.

I am.

The answer is an easy one. It's the only answer. 
Make sure your children live longer than you do. 
Do that and you've really done something, okay? The rest is filler. (107)
This definitely made me stop. And gasp. Really? Is it really that simple? I think not. I think there is so much more that a parent owes to his/her child. And as we see in the U.S. currently, simply sending your child to school can seal her or his death warrant. A parent cannot be held liable for that. But...if your child has died, I can easily imagine feeling as if you did not fulfill the most basic of parental responsibilities--keeping your child safe and alive. However, once they turn 18 (at least in the state of Indiana), s/he is considered an independent adult in legal terms. So, when Ethan enlists at the age of 18 there is nothing either parent can do about that. It was his decision alone to make. Did Arthur's expectations for his son help to alienate Ethan? Perhaps and most probably. I have always contended that family relationships are so complicated because we have so many "expectations" for the other(s). 

There is much irony contained within this novel. Not the least of which involves Russell and Arthur. While Arthur frames Russell and forces him out of Lancaster, it is Russell who ends up rescuing Arthur... Russell has proven his mettle as both an honest man and a man of honor and has become a success in that, as far as we know, he has lived his life from this philosophical base of doing what is 'right'. And as it should be, Arthur ends up losing in the end...losing virtually everything he has ever achieved or accomplished.
...sometimes the only path to immortality, paradoxically, is to die. (127)
Perhaps the ultimate irony. It was at this point I was convinced Arthur had killed Betsy. 

Now the Literary Wives question: 
What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

At one point, Betsy realizes she and Arthur are more alike than she had imagined:
Like her, he is broken. And she thinks perhaps this is what love is: 
letting someone else see that part of you that shatters like glass. 
All of us are broken in our own way. 
And in that moment...she knows she will marry Arthur. 
They will grow old together, broken together, and as long as 
they both don't completely shatter at the same time, 
they might find a way to pick each other off the ground. (215)
Now that, I believe, is true. A good relationship requires give and take, supporting and accepting support when needed. 

Per Arthur:
But if you learn anything in a marriage it is when to give up.
I used to think that all marriages ran the same trajectory.
They start with wanting to climb inside the other person and wear her skin as your own. 
They end with thinking that if the person across from you says another word, 
you will put a fork in her neck. 
That sounds darker than I mean it to, for it is joke. The truth usually lies in between, 
and the most one can hope for is accommodation, that you learn to move around each other, 
and that when the shit hits the fan, there is someone to suffer with... 
There are few things in this life we are equipped to do alone is all I'm trying to say. (111)
There is so much nuance contained within this one quote! Having remained in a marriage way beyond the point at which I was anywhere close to "happy" for over 12 of the 22 years, I have my own interpretation of the first line, though I am uncertain that is exactly what Arthur means. All marriages are NOT the same since all people are NOT the same. Each relationship is different and runs a different course. the most for which we can hope simply "accommodation"? Honestly, my goal is to achieve much more--a true partnership where each person contributes to the relationship. I believe it is impossible for each partner to contribute equally, as one person is typically doing more at any one time than the other, but there should be a semblance of 'balance' in my opinion. I believe that is different for each two people and they must work together to determine what makes each and both of them happiest. With that said, I believe it is totally unrealistic to expect to be "happy" in a relationship with another human being every single second of every single day. If that is your expectation, I can predict that you will never feel totally satisfied with another person--perhaps you should adopt some pets with which to share your daily life instead! 

The line about "someone to suffer with" certainly brings back some memories. There was a tragic event with one of my children, and I called my best friend who immediately said, "I'm on my way!" But I hadn't called expecting her to be there with me, only to talk with her, and I replied, "Oh, you don't have to do that!" To which she said, "I don't want you to be alone." I looked up and my (now-ex, thankfully) husband was in my line of vision, and I suddenly realized that she was so right! I was actually (emotionally) "alone" although I was technically married and my 'partner' (I use that term loosely!) was 'with me', I was indeed all alone... I will never forget just how abandoned and bewildered I felt as that realization hit me... And thank goodness for her! (That was some 22 years ago and we are STILL best friends!) 

Unfortunately, Arthur was a manipulator and manipulated himself right into Betsy's life and offered her the financial security and status she desired in adult life--being a "faculty wife" and then "Headmaster's wife." 
It is obvious what she saw in Arthur. She wanted to belong to Lancaster more than anything, 
to feel the old school run through her like a river, and who better to give her that than Arthur?
The school was not only in his blood, it was his blood...
There is a silly immortality to the boarding school life..
Teaching- even running a boarding school-is another form of arrested adolescence.
Even in their responsibilities, they are all playing Peter Pan, 
the real world something that happens outside these ivy-covered walls. (165)
She admits to being "grateful" to Arthur for giving her a pass on the mandatory swimming test to enable her to graduate from Lancaster, and this 'favor' is what brings him back into her life and allows her to overlook the wrongs he has wrought upon Russell... I couldn't resist wondering just who else he had manipulated in his lifetime. Though, heading a private institution demands manipulative skills as a fund-raiser, does it not? :)

Elizabeth felt she had
A perfectly scripted life, in other words, with regimented days and seasons defined as much 
by the rhythms of school as by the weather. It was beautiful to be a part of something bigger 
than she. Something that stretched both backward, to generations that came before, 
and forward, purposefully, to generations that had not yet arrived. 
Her life had both symmetry and meaning and sometimes 
Elizabeth thought that was all one could possibly ask for. (233)
She realizes that a large reason for her ambivalence regarding having a baby and starting a family is the fact that she has none of the typical concerns of other wives, and cleaning house and paying bills--all of that is taken care of for you at Lancaster. 
It is as if you had all the trappings of adulthood with none of the responsibility. (197)

When Arthur was at Yale and she at Wellesley, she spent many weekends with him and would always get upset when leaving. This is when Arthur 
invariably commits the one mistake he will compound throughout their lives: 
a failure to leave her alone. If he just let her be sad, just let her dwell in it for a moment, 
she would come out the other side and be fine. 
But he is a man and he wants to fix her. 
She tells him not to, she tells him he cannot, but he doesn't stop. (212)
This particularly struck me because this is something I have been working on lately--recognizing an emotion for what it is and the underlying source and accepting it, just being with it for awhile. Then moving on. And I feel sometimes as if we want to "fix" our partners when perhaps both would benefit from the other just "being there" and not trying to fix whatever seems to be wrong. I thought this was a beneficial insight. 

But was Elizabeth truly happy? At least in the way I view happiness--fulfilled emotionally... At one point she admits she may have been happy. However, she tells Russell when they meet many years later, she and Arthur "were done a long time ago." I felt the best relationship depicted was that between Betsy and Russell and I grieved for their loss... I did not feel that Arthur was a genuinely caring person in many ways. I believed him to be a male who was definitely not in touch with his feelings, and that typically makes such a person rather cold-hearted and unable to truly "connect" with others at an emotional level. I believed him to be all about the routines and regimen.

What is the next Literary Wives review?

It is Stay With Me 
by Ayobami Adebayo

Join us on June 4th!

I am excited about this one!

Happy Reading!


  1. It sounds like we agree on many things about this book... I was also so mad during the first part of the book! I also thought of Arthur as manipulative, and didn't think they were ever really happy together (although they might have thought they were for a while). After that whole first part of the book, I couldn't get that image of Arthur out of my mind - it tainted what I thought of him for the rest of the book. I don't know if it was supposed to, but it did.

    1. Yes, unfortunately, in this #MeToo era, I was so incensed by that first half! I am amazed that the fact that grief turned Arthur into an alcoholic and made Elizabeth evidently completely disengage from the marriage didn't even appear in my review! That tells you how insignificant it all seemed I guess!

  2. I don't think we were supposed to like Arthur, were we? But what were we supposed to like?

    1. I had to laugh at your last sentence! While I did have empathy for Betsy and her need to belong, and appreciated Russell's adherence to principles such as honesty, there wasn't much to like at all. That first half just set the tone for me! I had so much anger!

  3. I don't think either one of them was ever truly happy. I wish we would have gotten to know Elizabeth a little better, to understand why she wanted to belong to Lancaster to badly. That seemed to have been the most important factor in her decision to marry Arthur.

    1. Definitely agree! I think she just wanted structure and routine and a sense of belonging. Though she really didn't try to build a life for herself at all. No friendships with other faculty wives, etc. I think the comments others have made about this being written by a male might explain it. Though I feel other male authors haven't been so "off" in their depictions of females... Don't know. That would be worth researching a bit. Thanks for stopping by!