The Wives

This post was originally published on Peachleaves.

I updated my Goodreads page – are you my Goodreads friend?  You should be! – with a book I picked up in a used bookstore during lunch yesterday: The Wife, by Meg Wolitzer.  (Meg Wolitzer also wrote The Uncoupling, which I quite enjoyed.)

When I searched Goodreads for this book, the following books came up in this order:

The Time Traveler’s Wife  by Audrey Niffenegger
The Pilot’s Wife  by Anita Shreve
The Kitchen God’s Wife  by Amy Tan
The 19th Wife  by David Ebershoff
The Paris Wife  by Paula McLain
The Zookeeper’s Wife  by Diane Ackerman
The Canterbury Tales: Pardoner’s Tale, The Wife of Bath’s Tale, The Miller’s Tale, The Franklin’s Tale  by Geoffrey Chaucer
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales  by Oliver Sacks
The Tiger’s Wife  by Téa Obreht
Ahab’s Wife, or The Star-Gazer  by Sena Jeter Naslund
The Senator’s Wife  by Sue Miller
The Twentieth Wife  by Indu Sundaresan
The Doctor’s Wife  by Elizabeth Brundage
The Starter Wife  by Gigi Levangie Grazer
The Wife  by Meg Wolitzer

Holy cow.

A confession that will not surprise you: for some time before the evidence was laid out so plainly before me, I was both fascinated and alarmed by the number of titles I’d encountered that had the format of “<masculine name or noun>’s wife”.  Likewise “<masculine name or noun>’s daughter.”  When browsing, I reach for these books immediately.  Often as not, I put them back.  In many cases, these titles portend a literary exploration of what it is like to be the helpmate of an important man, both utterly crucial to the man’s success and utterly secondary to it.  I support this; I’ve wanted to explore this dynamic myself, fascinated by a couple of widows who completed the editing and publication of their philsopher-husbands’ work.  But the sheer volume of titles with this construction seems counterproductive, like the only stories that get on best-seller lists are those about women playing second (or nineteenth, or first of many) fiddles.

I do like Wolitzer’s variation of this: the book is indeed about a woman coming to terms with a lifetime of deferring her own writing to help her author-husband achieve fame and fortune, but it’s not called “The Author’s Wife” or “The Helsinki Prize-winner’s Wife.”  That’s something, I guess.


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