In Vera Caspary’s wonderful autobiography The Secrets of Grown-Ups, she detailed her interesting life, her struggles and her mistakes with intelligent sensitivity and just a touch of humility. I read The Secrets of Grown-Ups after reading both Laura (the book she’s most remembered for) and Bedelia. Like Laura, Bedelia was also made into a film, but while Laura makes many of those top-film lists, the film version of Bedelia has almost faded from view. Bedelia, incidentally, a wonderfully pathological tale of a female serial killer, is the book that convinced me to read Vera Caspary’s autobiography. And this brings me to The Man Who Loved His Wife, the story of a married couple whose life together changes drastically after the husband is diagnosed with cancer.
Fletcher Strode is a virile, affluent confident married wealthy businessman, at the prime of life at age 42 when he meets and falls in love with beautiful photographer’s model, Elaine Guardino, 19 years his junior. They meet by chance in a restaurant, fall in love, and three weeks later, Strode asks his wife for a divorce. His marriage wasn’t exactly on the rocks before he met Elaine, but it’s more or less a sham marriage with his wife and daughter living in the New Jersey suburbs while Strode leads a bachelor life (with other women) in New York. Strode marries Elaine 24 hrs. after getting a divorce.
Everyone predicts doom for Strode and his new wife. Could be that age difference or perhaps it’s the whirlwind romance, but it’s initially a very happy marriage, full of passion, sex, and money, and then 5 years later, Strode is diagnosed with cancer of the larynx. Strode’s larynx is removed, and he’s told that if the disease is discovered early, and treated aggressively, chances of survival are excellent. Unfortunately, Strode doesn’t grasp the physical and more importantly the psychological impact of the surgery. With his body still whole, Strode mentally minimizes the effects of the operation:
The loss of his vocal apparatus would be compensated for by different mechanics of sound production. His voice would be stilled for a time, but when the wound was sufficiently healed, he would learn to control a different set of muscles and would be able to speak in an altered voice. Examples were quoted to him, statistics read, stories told of patients who had overcome trauma and gone on with their work, enjoyed sports, eaten heartily, and made love to women.
During the mute period after the operation, he had been eager and positive that he would soon acquire a new voice. A breezy, self-confident man entered his hospital room to tell him, hoarsely, that many of those who had suffered the same operation had been able to return to work within a few weeks. This man, who had lost his voice box several years earlier, promised that with practice and patience, Fletcher would be able to speak as well as he did. Hell, I’ll do a lot better, Fletcher told himself. Thinking of the success he had achieved in business, the money he had made, the obstacles overcome, he knew himself the better man. He was both contemptuous of and amused by those sympathetic friends who, visiting him at the hospital, shouted at him or whispered, using their lips extravagantly as though he were deaf.
I’ll show them.
After he left hospital, optimism collapsed. There were too many changes. Smell and taste returned slowly and were never as keen as they had been. He had to breathe through a hole in his neck, a wound that could never be allowed to close now that his windpipe had been removed, there was no connection between the mouth and the nose with the lungs. He had to cough, sneeze, and blow his nose through this opening. There would be no more swimming for him, nor could he step into the shower carelessly. His loud and boisterous laugh was silenced forever. Every action required adjustment. Encounters with old friends left him morbid. Strangers appalled him. Going out became a nightmare.
Ironically, this is a situation in which Strode’s money works against him. If he needed to make a living in order to put food on the table, perhaps he would have pushed himself, made the best of a bad break, and got on with his life, but his amassed fortune allows him to stop working. He lacks the patience for voice therapy, and can’t stand this new social arrangement with him the student while others–healthy, full-bodied people he despises, teach him how to make sounds.
Fury and frustration robbed him of what little voice he had acquired. When he forgot himself and tried to shout in the old, authoritative manners, he could utter nothing but a string of unintelligible sounds.
He sells all of his business concerns, leaves New York, and with Elaine, moves to California.
It doesn’t take long before Strode’s marriage becomes more and more toxic. Elaine, still in her 20s, married a vigorous, passionate, energetic man, but now he’s resentful of the healthy, has become a recluse, and has a hair-trigger temper. Sinking into depression, Strode hates his new self, and obsessed with thoughts that Elaine, still young, beautiful, and whole, will find new lovers and remarry after his death, he begins a diary in which he pours his twisted thoughts. This is a diary of his suspicions and also his darkest fantasies; it’s in this diary that he relates his version of events and also his fantasies that Elaine will make his murder look like suicide….
The novel’s premise is extraordinary and is reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith for its claustrophobic toxicity. The plot captures, with intense psychological insight, this rat-trap of marital circumstance, diminished expectations, and twisted resentment. Those marriage vows include the ‘sickness and in health’ provision, yet when Elaine married Strode, he was a completely different human being able to offer her a glamorous, romantic life. We bring our character and personality to any illness and disease; some people sink to their worst selves when faced with their morality, and this is the case with Strode.
The characters in the novel are mostly unpleasant, and the secondary characters could have benefitted from a little subtlety; there’s the feeling, from certain sentences, that Caspary couldn’t stand those secondary characters even as she shows empathy for Strode’s tortured psyche. Strode’s selfish, immature daughter from his first marriage, Cindy, and her ne’er-do-well, sly hanger-on of a husband, unemployed lawyer Don arrive in California and move in for an extended vacation. These two characters are so vicious & superficial, they just manage to veer away from caricature. The novel’s premise is extremely clever and unfortunately the very necessary characters of Don and Cindy (& Sgt Knight) don’t match the level of the subtle, sophisticated plot. They didn’t need to be quite this overtly venal, so transparent, or in the case of Sgt. Knight, so one-dimensional, and if their characters had been toned down a notch, they would be more appropriate to this otherwise fascinating book.
12 responses to “The Man Who Loved His Wife: Vera Caspary (1966)”
Too bad about the one dimensional characters as the rest of the book sounds so tragically well done.
Personally I am such a talker and rely on speaking so much that I might not fare so well under similar circumstances.
My job in the real world was as a speech pathologist dealing with exactly this sort of situation – either as result of laryngectomy or of stroke, even more catastrophic in its effects. It does make a great premise for a novel but very very hard to handle with the subtlety it demands.
My observations about the secondary characters shouldn’t, I hope, put anyone off of reading the book. Caspary, is, IMO, a wonderful writer and far too neglected these days.
I had never even heard of her and can’t find her in either of my libraries, but will definitely be chasing up the autobiography at least. Thanks!
It’s available on the kindle here in N. America. She was an incredible woman
It’s funny that before you even mentioned Highsmith I sensed something similar. Caspary is a writer I really want to try. Too bad about the secondary characters but I still think this sounds very good.
I don’t think it’s enough to put you off the book if it sounds interesting to you. You’re supposed to dislike these characters. There are a few times the author goes inside their heads and shows their thoughts which are vicious and venal as I said. It’s not a huge flaw, but if they’d been toned down just a bit, the novel would have been even better. That said, it’s still very good.
But you liked Laura better, didn’t you? I absolutely love the movie.
This sounds great despite the second character. Reading this shortly after Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid must be interesting. There are similarities in the setting: an older man married and much in love with a younger wife. And he’s having a health problem. I’m sure they don’t really compare but it’s interesting to see what two different writers did with a similar set of cards.
I have a used copy of Laura in French on the shelf. Given my recent troubles with crime fiction translations of books from the same period, I’m not sure I should read it in French.
It would be an interesting one to compare with Arthur Schnitzler’s Dying – a dying man’s partner promises that she doesn’t want to live without him and so will kill herself when he dies (if he does, they’re not really facing up to it at first). He tells her he wouldn’t hear of such a thing. As his health declines and hers remains robust however the promise starts to become more appealing to him, and less to her. There’s a review at mine, I think you’d like it.
I’m actually quite tempted. The question is whether it would be better to read Laura first which sounds the better novel. Then again, there’s something to be said for saving the better novel back a bit rather than opening with it and having everything else be not quite as good.
I have the Schnitzler book here, so that saves me a step. My list of Caspary novels in order so far: Bedelia, Laura, The Man who Loved His Wife and then Stranger Than Truth. I’m not putting the bio in the list as it’s in a category all of its own. If you think you might get into Caspary’s fiction, I’d probably start with other than Laura. When you read the top ones first, you can’t help but compare. Of course there may be others to contest the order I’ve fabricated, and that’s the fun of it.
Laura however has the benefit of being on Kindle, which Bedelia doesn’t. I’ll wait a while, hopefully that’ll get fixed.