Wife (Wolitzer)

Book Reviews
Here are three words that land with a thunk: "gender," "writing" and "identity." Yet in The Wife, Meg Wolitzer has fashioned a light-stepping, streamlined novel from just these dolorous, bitter-sounding themes. Maybe that's because she's set them all smoldering: rage might be the signature emotion of the powerless, but in Wolitzer's hands, rage is also very funny.... As a portrait of deception, this small, intelligently made novel rivals "The Dangerous Husband," by Jane Shapiro, and John Lanchester's "Debt to Pleasure."... But if The Wife is a puzzle and an entertainment, it is also a near-heartbreaking document of feminist realpolitik.
Claire Dederer - New York Times Book Review


To say that The Wife is Wolitzer's most ambitious novel to date is an understatement. This important book introduces another side of a writer we thought we knew: Never before has she written so feverishly, so courageously. It almost becomes possible to imagine a female Philip Roth: The keen intelligence, rage, neurosis and humor are certainly equal to his, but this is not to say the book is derivative. Hers is a wholly original voice, as she tells the story not only of a marriage built on uneven compromises, but also of a woman's poignant self-discovery. Readers born after 1970 may not appreciate what motivates Joan Castleman, but it is crucial to know this woman — many of us already do and don't even realize it.
Kera Bolonik - Washington Post


Meg Wolitzer has ripened into a chanteuse of a writer, a Dietrich of fiction; her smoky humor, her languid look at life, her breathless sentences are all let loose a little more than usual in The Wife. Joan is 64, married to a literary lion, Joe Castleman, one of the big men in the world who "derived much of his style from 'The Dylan Thomas Handbook of Personal Hygiene and Etiquette.' " They are on their way to Helsinki where he will receive the prestigious Helsinki Prize, $525,000, awarded to a writer, one step down from the Nobel. This is as far as Joan will climb with him, though he does not yet know it. While their three children have grown in various states of contortion around his ego and their marriage, she is the real writer in the marriage, and she has borne him all the way: his affairs, successes, setbacks with a grace that is the envy of their friends and acquaintances. But now she's done. Not mad, just ready to have her own life.

It has by no means been a life of quiet suffering. It was a life she chose as a young student at Smith College, a promising writer in her own right, who fell in love with her professor, Castleman, and seduced him knowingly, so that he was eventually forced to leave his wife and baby daughter. She became the "alpha wife" at literary conferences and parties, and she enjoys it with a kind of Mrs. Ramsey–like artfulness.

Various literary women make an impression on her and haunt her decisions: "Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman and Carson McCullers.… If I opened the lid, their heads would pop out like jack-in-the-box clowns on springs, mocking me, reminding me that they existed, that women could occasionally become important writers with formidable careers." Wolitzer's world is John Updike's world, but her writing is at once grittier and bigger. It's hard to tell how old she is because she writes with so little bitterness. I hope that The Wife might appeal to both men and women. It is as much about the male psyche as it is about the woman's.
Susan Salter Reynolds - Los Angeles Times


Wolitzer opens her latest tale in the first-class cabin of an airplane. Joan, a still-striking 64-year-old woman, observes her husband, the "short, wound-up, slack-bellied" famous novelist Joe Castleman, as he lolls in his seat and accepts the treats and attention offered him by the flight attendants. The couple are on their way to Finland, where Joe will receive the fictional Helsinki Prize, not quite as prestigious as the Nobel, but worth a small fortune-the crown jewel in a spectacular career. Yet as the once blonde Smith College co-ed looks over at the once handsome creative writing teacher who seduced her, she realizes that she must end this marriage. The reader is prepared for a tale of witty disillusionment. Here is Joan on the literary fame game: "You might even envy us-him for all the power vacuum-packed within his bulky, shopworn body, and me for my twenty-four-hour-access to it, as though a famous and brilliant writer-husband is a convenience store for his wife, a place she can dip into anytime for a Big Gulp of astonishing intellect and wit and excitement." As the narrative flows from the glamorous present back to the past, tracing the bohemian Greenwich Village beginnings of the couple's relationship and Joe's skyrocketing success and compulsive philandering, an almost subliminal psychological horror tale begins to unfold. Wolitzer delicately chips away at this seemingly confident and detached narrator and her swaggering "genius" husband, inserting a sly clue here and there, until the extent of Joan's sacrifice is made clear. There is no cheap, gratifying Hollywood ending to make it all better. Instead, Wolitzer's crisp pacing and dry wit carry us headlong into a devastating message about the price of love and fame. If it's a story we've heard before, the tale is as resonant as ever in Wolitzer's hands.
Publishers Weekly


Joan Castelman is en route to Finland to watch her husband, renowned author Joe Castleman, win the Helsinki Prize when she decides to leave him. What follows is Joan's fascinating recollection of their marriage, his career, and her fading dreams. Telling her story in alternating segments, she starts in the 1950s with the beginning of the couple's professor-student relationship and continues through to the present, their 40 years of marriage stacking up the unspoken regrets that lead to Helsinki. This is Wolitzer's sixth novel (following Surrender, Dorothy ), and she's as sharp as ever. Her funny yet harshly bitter book features amazingly crafted prose, and the story of what Joan sacrifices to support her husband and his illustrious career is just as astounding. Complete with a staggering twist ending, this is not one to miss. For most fiction collections. —Beth Gibbs, Davidson, NC
Library Journal


Forty-five years of a bad marriage laid out in pat detail, by the author, most recently, of Surrender Dorothy (1999). On the way to Helsinki, where her novelist husband Joe is to receive a major literary award, 64-year-old Joan Castleman relives their years together as she steels herself to tell Joe she’s leaving him. They met during her freshman year at Smith, where he was her English professor. All the girls were smitten by the young, darkly handsome Jew whose wife had just had his baby, but Joan was the one he noticed, both for her blond beauty (and impeccable debutante WASP credentials) and for her natural writing talent. Soon they began a torrid affair, dampened only slightly when she read a less than brilliant story he’d published. After his wife throws Joe out, Joan happily drops out of college to set up house with him in Greenwich Village, where she works as an editorial assistant to support them while he writes his first novel. The book, based on their affair, is a hit, launching his career. Having lost touch with his child from his first wife, Joe has been a less than involved father to the three he’s had with Joan: two daughters, one whose gayness seems completely gratuitous, and an emotionally troubled son who threatened his father one night (the vague, pulled-punches quality of that scene typifying the story as a whole). While Joe has always given Joan credit for helping him with his work, he’s also had frequent dalliances with other women (and, if Joan’s brittle narration is any clue, it might seem hard to blame him). Eventually, Joan drops the bomb: just as her kids always suspected, she wrote the books for which Joe took credit. After his fatal coronary, will she keep her secret to preserve his reputation? Connect-the-dots predictable except for those occasional tasty morsels of nastiness.
Kirkus Reviews

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