Photo of Meg Wolitzer and her husband

Written by on January 26, 2014

The Wife, by Meg Wolitzer

I knew I liked Meg Wolitzer before I read her latest,The Interestings, but afterwards I was inspired to look for her older novels, something I only do with my very favorite authors. I hit the jackpot this time.

The Wife, first published in 2003, is a story set in academia and publishing. Narrated by (you guessed it) the wife of Joe Castleman, an author in his 70s who, after an increasingly successful career, is about to receive the Helsinki Prize — a lesser (and as far as I can tell fictional) version of the Nobel. As the book opens, the two of them are in first class, flying to Finland to accept the prize:

The moment I decided to leave him, the moment I thought, enough, we were thirty-five thousand feet above the ocean, hurtling forward but giving the illusion of stillness and tranquility. Just like our marriage, I could have said, but why ruin everything right now? Here we were in first-class splendor, tentatively separated from anxiety; there was no turbulence and the sky was bright, and 18006389somewhere among us, possibly, sat an air marshal in dull traveler’s disguise, perhaps picking at a little dish of oily nuts or captivated by the zombie prose of the in-flight magazine. Drinks had already been served before takeoff, and we were both frankly bombed, our mouths half open, our heads tipped back. Women in uniform carried baskets up and down the aisles like a sexualized fleet of Red Riding Hoods.

It takes us most of the book to discover the full extent of Joan’s grievances against Joe, besides the expected ones: unbridled selfishness, infidelity, bad fathering. The story alternates between the late 1950s, when Joan was his prize student, briefly his babysitter, then his mistress, and finally his bride, once he leaves his first wife and child; and the present, in Helsinki, where Joe is celebrated and Joan weighs her next move. Joan’s character is smart, with a bitter sense of humor that keeps the book from becoming a melodrama. And there’s a plot twist that I did NOT see coming, giving the ending even more impact.

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