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!

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Naomi of Consumed by Ink
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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 your 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! 

The Dutch House

My first Ann Patchett!