I recently saw the trailer for the movie The Wife and learned it was based on a book and for some reason I thought it was based on a true story. The story wasn’t that compelling for me, so I didn’t go out searching for it. But when browsing my library for an audiobook to read, there it was, The Wife. Within a minute, it was downloaded and I was listening to the first few lines and wondering where we were headed.
The book is seen through the eyes of the wife and it begins with Joe and Joan Castleman, Joan being the wife, on a plane heading to Helsinki where Joe is about to receive a literary award for his latest book. On that flight, Joan decides to divorce him – she hasn’t told him, simply thinks it. She proceeds to share with us her life with Joe, how she met him, fell in love, married, had kids, worked together, fell out of love – you know the typical experiences many couples go through in their marriage and/or relationship. Joan describes the era they lived in from the 50’s to current times; what it was like for women throughout those years. How women were seen as decoration on a man’s arm, how women entertained, hosted parties and men worked, put their name on accomplishments and so on.
During their 40-some year marriage, Joe has continually had relationships outside the marriage, has continually taken Joan for granted, has lied, used, and discarded her feelings, has made Joan’s world all about him. And we learn that Joan let him.
That’s the thing about this book. Joan was not ignorant, stupid, oblivious. She knew what he was doing. She knew even who he had relationships with. Heck there is a part in the book near the end where she makes a list of the women she knew about. She covered for him, even with her children who grew to dislike their father. Her whole life was based on taking care of Joe, supporting his accomplishments and holding him during his failures. She let it happen. It’s aggravating. It’s a little hard to support her. I had to remind myself that they lived in different times, the 50s, 60s 70s – women had different roles, expectations – often like children, were meant to be seen and not heard. But I wanted to yell – dump him! He’s worthless! Publish under your name! Be like Peggy Doris Hawkins who proved she was the real painter of the women and children with big eyes. Not her husband, Walter Keane, who took credit for all her creations by putting his name on the paintings.
There are two big shockers near the end of the book, one more or less, was pretty obvious early on, in that she, Joan, was the true author of of Joe’s published books. In fact the book he is about to win an award for was also written by her. The other shock is that he dies before she can divorce him. You’d like to say good riddance at this time and yet…it would have been nice for her to get some satisfaction. Divorce him. Shame him to the press. Especially after receiving such an award. Get people to question the validity of his name, his works. But he dies. Good riddance.
Anyway, there are some interesting scenes or lines in the book that I enjoyed. Such as
‘As a rule, the men who own the world are hyper-actively sexual. Though not necessarily with their wives.’ – Made me think of Trump, Putin and Clinton (to name a few). And yet, Obama managed to keep his willy in his pants. Explain that! This had me chuckling. Of course, she saw Joe as one of these man. Pathetic.
‘Everyone needs a wife; even wives need wives’ – True. Wives, mothers, do so much more than what is in front of your eyes. They make sure the kids are clean, washed, nose wiped, homework done, and on their way to school. They make certain their partners are clean, washed, nose wiped, have clean underwear, lunch packed and on their way to work. Then they clean house, feed the pets, do the groceries, pay the bills, wash up, make their lunch and head out to work. But who is a the wife for them.
‘I might actually have won this time’, Joe had said to me at dinner…’Harry thinks so. Louise does too.’…’Don’t you think it even might be the case, Joan”’ he asked. ‘I don’t know’ – This conversation goes on for a bit longer where Joe wants a percentage of how much Joan thinks he is going to win. Joe’s excitement is unreal. These words are unreal. He isn’t the one that wrote the book. He behaves like he actually wrote it. He’s delusional. And yet, he’s the one who will win the Helsinki prize.
Lastly, I really enjoyed a conversation Joan has with a series of women, each having played a role in Joe’s life. It takes place in Helsinki, following an evening of food and lots of drink. Joan decides to head back to the hotel, succumbing to her drunkenness. – ‘My head a punch bowl filled with various Finnish liquors. I lay down in the backseat with my feet up and thought about the pleasure of leaving a party alone. Often the Siamese-twinship of marriage keeps you waiting in rooms you’d rather vacate, but tonight I was out of there on my own. He was my other half and I wanted us divided.’ – Then the conversation with the women begins.
‘Are you really going to leave him?’ – The voice inside the drunken punch bowl belonged to Elaine Mozell, a novelist who had struggled as a female novelist spending her latter years deep in alcohol. – ‘Did you get what you want?’
‘I’m not sure what it was she wanted’ – Joan’s mother, this time – ‘That man was a Jew, that was her first mistake’.
‘She wanted to be by his side’ – Tosha Bresner, a suicide, the wife of Lev Bresner.
‘Who wouldn’t? It was her chance to be with a big man. To prop him up’ – Elaine again.
‘She could have done it differently’ – novelist Valerian Qaanaaq – ‘I did it, after all. And I had absolutely no help. Do you think my family expected me to become a writer? Get real. Yet I did it anyway’.
‘Well, I guess, a long time ago I did start thinking about becoming a writer’ – Joan responds.
‘I told you that they wouldn’t let you in, didn’t I?’ – Elaine.
‘You did. But maybe I was weak’. – Joan.
‘Oh no you weren’t. I admired you. You seemed so bold. I could never do half the things you did, or say the things you said. I was afraid, but you weren’t’. – Tosha.
‘I was afraid, too’ – Joan.
‘No, you were just realistic. You knew you couldn’t have what they have. You wanted their muscularity. You wanted to matter. To make sure your voice still kept chattering from beyond the grave. Chattering on and on in the hell that a certain kind of writer goes to when he leaves this world. The thing is: the minute he enters hell, he owns that place, too’. – Elaine.
‘He’s a Jew’. – mother.
‘A big fat novelist. The man who took everything’. – Elaine.
‘He’s my boy! That’s all he is, a boy! Why are you giving him such a hard time? You should forgive him everything. After all, what other choice do you have?’ – That was Joe’s mom.
Those final words is how Joe truly was. He played with life. He wanted to be loved, accepted, heard. And Joan facilitated that for him. She was his mother, his carer, his supporter. She was his enabler.
Joan was strong too. She had to have been, to stay sane through all the years of disappointments, infidelities, lies. Why did she not leave? The awards and accolades the published books received, were they not proof that she had talent. That her work was sound, accepted by many, that she had the talent needed to succeed on her own. Why did she not take her work and leave. It wasn’t the 60’s or 70’s anymore. Women were successfully publishing books, articles, writing bylines in major papers. She was strong enough to endure a life with Joe. Was she not strong enough to live a life without Joe. Is that it?
I haven’t seen the movie yet. But Glenn Close won Best Actress in a Drama Motion Picture. Kudos to her.