Joan and Joe seem like they were made for each other. Their names are phonetically so similar, it is easy to think that their lives are just as in sync. They’ve been married for almost forty years now and Joe has just reached the pinnacle of his literary career. In fact when we meet the couple, they are in the first class section of an airplane bound for Finland where Joe is to receive the prestigious Helsinki prize, just a step down from the Nobel Prize because let’s face it, he’s good but he’s not quite there. Yet, as Joe luxuriates in the trappings of his accomplishments, the buxom stewardess who offers him cookies and then makes an almost but not quite identical offer to his wife, Joan makes a decision. She is done. And after this last event, she will leave him. But first, she must endure Joe being celebrated and feted and fussed over, all while she recalls her own literary ambitions and her dreams of becoming a writer herself.
For when they met, Joan was a talented student and Joe was her creative writing professor and she’s been waiting for decades for her turn. While it seemed like an impossible dream back in the 1950s when Joan was a college coed, now she’s sixty-four and the world can’t possible still be ruled by these boys.
The Wife is not Meg Wolitzer’s first novel but it carries some of the awkwardness of a story written in the author’s early years. Yet there are moments of sheer brilliance where the metaphors she uses to describe the phases of her and Joe’s lives are perfectly executed and her sentences convey such depth. I enjoyed the easy tone the narrator takes in representing her story to the reader in a series of flashbacks to various points in their relationship yet never quite playing her full hand, almost teasing with promised intimacy. But the essence of the book is the author’s commentary on the role of women, which she achieves through comparing several wives – the narrator herself, her mother, friends of other famous novelists, but also Carol, Joe’s first wife that he abandoned to replace her with Joan, and indeed, even Joe’s dead mother. How each woman deals with abandonment of her husband, whether a real one from death or the pseudo-widowhood imposed on them when their husband becomes famous and they are relegated almost to being part of the entourage. I was captivated by how well these themes were represented and want to read more of Wolitzer’s books now.