Monday, December 3, 2018

Literary Wives #36

My copy of this totally enthralling book was the hardcover with the image on the right. 
However, I prefer the cover image on the left 
as I feel it better portrays Grace.
I started reading this at about 10:30PM one 
Saturday night and stayed up until 3:30AM 
on Sunday morning, trying to finish it, but just
couldn't get those last 10 pages or so read 
before I was so tired I had to call it quits! 
That is exactly how enthralling I found this 
book to be. Totally!! 
It has been a very long time since a book kept me so interested...

Having read and enjoyed Body Surfing, I have decided that Anita Shreve 
belongs on my favorite author list! I have been wanting to read The Pilot's Wife in forever, and think that has definitely moved up on my TBR listing! 
It was an Oprah Book Club selection, so even more encouraging...
But I digress...on to my review of this current Literary Wives selection!

I was thrown off just a bit by the title of the first chapter, "Wet." All I read about this novel talked of drought. Huh? But ironically, the spring prior to the extreme summer drought was very wet and damp with much rain. I used a clothes line when I lived in the country and thoroughly enjoyed Shreve's description: 
On the last beautiful afternoon, over two weeks ago, there was wash on the line in every 
front porch and backyard. With white sheets, undershirts, and rags flapping in the wind, 
it looked as thought an entire town of women had surrendered. (3)
That was the end of the first paragraph and it made me laugh out loud. Definitely a good start! As the rains continue, Grace hangs clothes in the house to dry. Then leaves burners lit on the stove at night to make provide enough heat to dry them! 
They live in a shingled bungalow two blocks inland from the ocean. 
Good investment, Gene always says. (4)
Indeed, I could imagine living that close to the ocean with constant rain and all the humidity that would gather and just hang in the air, even inside the house. That would get old! And the children wouldn't be able to go outside and play nearly as often. Once dryer weather reappears and Grace is walking through Hunts Beach, she
thinks the fluttering sheets and clothes are not, after all, 
a sign of surrender, but instead a symbol of survival. (17)
It all depends upon your perspective, doesn't it? 

I admit that the fact that Grace is a smoker was a bit unsettling to me. And then Dr. Lighthart smokes, too! Yikes! Though this was a different day and age, in 1947, when no one gave a second thought to smoking cigarettes. We learn that during this time there is an encouragement to ration and cut back to help "feed Europe." 

As I got to the part of the book where an uncontrolled and uncontrollable fire destroys all of Hunts Beach, the Camp fire was similarly burning in California. It felt a bit surreal. Thankfully, Grace had piece of mind to not only get herself and children into the edge of the ocean and covered with water-soaked materials, but also to instruct Rosie to do the same. Neither husband was home when the fire hit, so these women had to think for themselves and survive it intact. The aftermath is what would seem unbearable to me. No home. No job. No money. Completely displaced. And for Grace, no husband. 

Grace, her mother, and her children, stay with some of her mother's friends temporarily, until she realizes that her mother-in-law's house is empty. There is no word of Gene, though Grace checks everywhere and with everyone she can. (Communication is not instantaneous as it is now with the internet, cell phones, etc.) She decides to move her mother and children into her husband's inherited house. The first time she enters the  house, she realizes with a start that someone is in the house and playing the piano! This person has also been displaced and was simply squatting in the house/on the property. However, Grace decides to allow Aidan to remain in the house as long as he pays rent. This works well, and Aidan and Grace provide each other company in the evenings as they both read and converse. Slowly but surely, Grace realizes she is falling in love with Aidan and they finally consummate their relationship. Then Aidan gets a job and must resume traveling on the road from concert to concert, leaving Grace with her children and mother once again. A very much different and wounded Gene reappears in their life. Though extremely scarred and injured by the fire, he has survived months of hospitalization to return home. He is a completely different person, and not in a good way. How will Grace bear caring for a husband who is belligerent at best and violent at worst? 

We are here to answer the Literary Wives question:

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

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

Naomi of Consumed by Ink

I thought this book had much to say about 
"being a wife"!

As Grace and her family sit at the dinner table that first night, she thinks to herself:
These are her happiest moments, with her family in harmony. 
In many ways, she thinks, her family is perfect. 
Two beautiful children, a boy and a girl; a husband who works hard at his job 
and doesn't resist chores at home. Every night, Gene washes the dishes... (4)
We do learn that Gene is often gone 2-3 nights during the week due to his work as a surveyor on the Maine Turnpike Project. However, it appears that when he is home he is a good father and husband, making their home tranquil.

As Grace considers her plans for the day and what Gene might wish her to do for his mother, rather than going to visit with her own mother, she wonders 
Would he care or would that go into the category of "women's work," 
a subject that allows him to dismiss it? (7)
Oh, boy. Did that ever bring back memories. One of my ex-husband's favorite things to say was that something or other was "women's work" and therefore, he shouldn't do it...and trust me, he wouldn't! Even after I returned to work full time with three young children! Ugh! Bad memories... I shook my head as I read this. Poor Grace... I know how that feels.

When Grace walks into her mother's home, she has a sensation of great warmth and safety.
This doesn't occur in her own house despite the fact that at night and on Sundays, 
there's a man to protect her...Even in the vestibule...the familiar scent--from the walls, 
the rugs, the coats hanging on hooks--transports Grace to a universe before she met Gene, 
before life became uncertain and even a little frightening. (12) as soon as page 12 we begin to get a different impression of Grace's home life other than that picture of a "perfect" family. And she eventually loses this comfortable haven as her mother's house also burns down in the  Maine fires. 
That night, after Grace has put the children to bed, she slips her slicker from a hook 
and walks down her front path to the sidewalk. 
She has maybe a minute before Gene will notice her absence. 
It isn't much, but it's everything. She is who she is, nothing more. (15)
I could very much relate to her feeling that just for a minute she could do whatever, think whatever, just be...without anyone needing or wanting her for anything. Having spent 13 years at home with my own young children, I definitely knew times like that.

Once she returns to the house she knows that Gene will say "he is going up." 
...she must listen to the inflection in his voice and watch his face to know if she is to go up 
with him, or whether she can sit at the kitchen table and have another cigarette. (15)
Oh, my. This is not a good relationship. She must basically read his mind? About when she is supposed to go to bed? Yikes! And then we learn that their sex life is anything but satisfying. As Grace describes their sexual encounter that night, I couldn't help but think that Gene was raping his own wife. And causing her pain--purposefully! In the aftermath Grace realizes that although Gene uses a poignant nickname, Dove, for her, 
It seems unlikely now that she will ever have a fond nickname for her husband. (16)
Yeah. No kidding! Neither would I! What an asshole. Of course, then I had to consider...had Grace actually told him that it hurt her where the episiotomies had been performed? As mousy as she seemed to be with him, perhaps not? I don't know, but I do know that the sexual encounter she described seemed in no way pleasurable to her...or maybe even to him. And I could relate. It took six months following the birth of my first child before sex became bearable due to the site of the episiotomy. :( 

Then there is the night Gene brings home a wringer washer and helps her learn how to use it, ending with him tilting her face up to his so he can leave "a gentle kiss on her lips" and calls her "Dove." She immediately wonders if a wringer washer can save a marriage...and believes the answer may be "yes." :) Isn't it true? No matter how bad a relationship it seems that every once in awhile your partner does or says something that immediately makes you feel good and then you wonder...and hope...that maybe...just maybe...

If not for Grace's next-door neighbor, Rosie, I'm not sure what might have happened to Grace. Rosie helps to ground her, to keep her sane, and to provide a reality check periodically to Gene's behavior(s) and her reactions to them. When Grace admits that Gene makes her feel guilty about his mother's death:
If I had gone to see his mother once in a while, she wouldn't have gotten breast cancer. 
[Rosie] That's the stupidest thing I ever heard.
[Grace] "Yes, well." She thinks for a moment. "But you know what? It feels true." 
It feels true that she might have wished her mother-in-law gone. Not dead, just gone. 
It feels true that she caused the hurtful night in bed, even though she sort of knows she didn't. 
She does know, however, that it's been too long since she and Gene have had sex.
It feels sort of true that she doesn't want to start up again. (23)
I am not a bit surprised. Gene does nothing to try to ensure Grace's happiness on an interpersonal level. He provides for his family. He buys a wringer washer and surprises Grace with it, but as a partner on a personal level, he sucks! Big time! Though this is set in a different time when men were not expected to be considerate and women were simply expected to acquiesce. 

Grace had become pregnant from the last unpleasant sexual encounter with her husband, and she loses the baby in the aftermath of the fire. She admitted to having had some doubts about a child conceived in a such a violent manner, then figured that was an old "wives tale." Upon Gene's return her life becomes pure and absolute drudgery. Her mother leaves as she can't handle the isolation and constant caregiving her two grandchildren require.Once Grade admits to her that she wants to leave Gene, her mother informs her, "You have to stay." And when Grace asks "Why?" She replies, "You're married." So being married can seem like a death sentence? Evidently, according to her own mother. 

Grace is abandoned to a 'hell on earth' trying to deal with Gene who is determined not to help himself, as well as raise her children. She has managed to get a job and has a vehicle, but Gene sabotages the car and then has it sold. She must quit work due to no transportation and once she learns of Gene's interference, and the true reason he married her, she is determined to leave. After unwittingly discovering her mother-in-law's jewelry stash, she decides to leave Gene to his own devices. Though she does hire a full-time therapist to oversee his care and recovery before leaving with the children. I don't know that I could have been so generous, although it isn't as if his current health is his fault; he was trying to fight the fire when he was hurt... He was trying to do the right thing and help himself and others. I was reminded of Celestial's similar situation in An American Marriage regarding commitment to a man/marriage, though Roy was unjustly incarcerated, whereas Gene had suffered physical and mental anguish, both Grace and Celestial faced the same conundrum--when is a "wife" released from duty and commitment to a marriage in seemingly unbearable conditions? It is easy for those who have never been faced with such life events to berate a wife who doesn't remain committed faithful to her marriage vows, but I believe none of us really knows for certain how we might react in similar situations. I do know I remained committed to my first marriage an additional 12 years beyond when I was "happy," but we all must make our own decisions. In Grace's letter to Gene in the wake of her departure, she states
I think that if the fire hadn't happened, we'd have continued as the little family that we were. 
In time, I believe, we would have come to care about each other in a way that was companionable. But the fire did happen, and that changed everything.
I hope you'll be happier and that your injuries will heal. (221)
She does reassure him that she will bring the children to visit him in the future and not deny him access to them. All in all, I thought she was quite kind and generous. Though I felt "companionable" is not the goal to which a marriage should strive. Shouldn't there be some true love, caring, and kindness? That just made me sad, because I couldn't help thinking how different things might have been had Grace not discovered the jewelry and been able to sell it for cash to leave and create a new life for herself and her children. And the irony that her mother-in-law inadvertently provided a way out of her marriage to Gene was not lost on me! I bet she was turning over in her grave! I couldn't help but wonder what the woman's goal was in sewing the jewels into her clothing, other than to hoard what she had so no one else would discover it? It just seemed like such a greedy action!

What goes around, comes around! And it is Rosie who now rescues her! Grace has enough money from the jewelry to build a house and settle down in Canada next to Rosie and her family. As she and Rosie discuss Gene's physical and mental state, and the implications for his relationship with Grace and his children, Grace tells Rosie, " and Tim are so good together!" To which Rosie replies:
Oh, we are. But, you know, a marriage is a marriage. (237)
For me, this statement reflects the fact that after enough years together there will always be times when each partner frustrates the other, usually at least in small ways, but many times in much more substantial ways, creating a stressful relationship to some degree. It is never all good all the time...and requires effort from both parties to work on a daily basis. So while marriage does require commitment, when can that be abandoned? For Celestial in An American Marriage it took years before she could no longer bear remaining committed to her marriage. For Grace it required only weeks. I feel it was much more intense for her having to deal with Gene face-to-face. I felt Gene was at least suffering from PTSD and possibly other mental/emotional challenges in the wake of months spent comatose as well as other physical injuries. Should Grace have stayed? Was that to be her only option as his wife? I don't know. There is no easy yes or no answer to these questions, in my opinion. I watched as my uncle remained faithful (as far as any of us knew, anyway) and committed to his wife, my mother's sister, in the wake of her diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and her intermittent institutional treatments, and wondered, even as a child, at his ability to do so. Much as I feel marriage should be an overriding commitment, there are exceptions, in my opinion. One person's happiness shouldn't necessarily be totally sacrificed to keep a commitment once the situation is so drastically altered, should it? Though I feel as of our current society still expects this, just as Grace's mother told her she must stay with Gene because she is "married." Though obviously, her mother feels no similar commitment since she left the situation herself...

And while on a girls-only weekend excursion, Grace discovers a piano concert poster for none other than Aidan's upcoming concert. Needless to say they attend and Rosie leads Grace backstage afterward. She and Aidan reconnect and the book ends with Grace  imagining all kinds of possible scenarios for their relationship into the future, though she is very uncertain, all she knows right now is that Aidan's "grip on her wrist is fierce," so I felt this book ended with some hope for Grace to enjoy a relationship that would give her pleasure, and perhaps without the eternal commitment seemingly demanded of a "wife" as she had recently experienced.

I loved this book and can highly recommend it. 
What do you think? Should Grace have suffered through the remainder of her life with a newly damaged husband? Ironically, when she visits Gene, it appears that his full-time live-in therapist is actually his new partner in life, and his health has improved greatly.
I doubt he would have had such improvement if Grace had stayed.
Perhaps they both needed a new life in order to progress and move forward...
This kinda makes sense to me as I feel we can allow ourselves (especially females) 
to believe it is impossible make drastic changes in our lives and be successful. 
I believe we can and should when we're unable to be happy in the current situation...

I really liked this cover, 
but don't believe it accurately reflects the novel's overall theme.

Our next read for February 2019 is
They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple

This is a Persephone reprint! 
I'll definitely be ordering a copy!

Join us on February 4, 2019!
We will have left 2018 far behind us by then!

Happy reading!


  1. I can't believe none of the rest of us really touched on Gene raping Grace. That still really stands out to me as so heinous. I know we all saw Gene differently when he came back but there were signs that he wasn't a great guy before that!
    There's an expectation that Grace should stay with Gene because they are married but I wonder if that would have been the same if Gene were the one in Grace's situation?

    1. Oh, that is so insightful! Yes, what if the gender roles had been reversed? Especially in 1947! I like considering that possibility. Bet it would have been totally different. Regarding the "marital rape," perhaps it was so pertinent to me due to my own experience with a poorly performed episiotomy and the resulting sensisitivity/pain, but I can almost guarantee you my reaction would have been very different from Grace's! I'm pretty sure Gene would have been picking himself up off the floor! ;)

  2. You make a good point at the end about both of their lives improving more apart than they would have together, and it had me thinking that maybe Gene was just as miserable in his marriage as Grace. And although he's a man, and it would have been easier for him to leave, maybe he was decent enough to try to do his "duty" as a husband and father.(This all being before the fire.) From what I remember, he *did* seem to enjoy his children.

    1. I recall the same regarding his interactions (though few of them are depicted) with his children pre-fire would okay. That really struck me that when she visited he seemed so much healthier and happier. Sometimes two people just don't work well together... Though I still feel he exhibited quite a few characteristics of an abuser in that pre-fire phase also, just a bit more subtly than post-fire!