“All over the world, husbands and wives routinely and somewhat pointlessly ask one another: Are you okay? It’s part of the contract; it’s the thing to do, because it implies that you care, that you’re paying attention, when in fact you might be deeply and relentlessly bored.”
Meg Wolitzer’s novel, The Wife, is the history of the long, tired marriage of the Castlemans. As with any long marriage, it’s changed over the years, but this marriage also bears the scars of innumerable infidelities, and the total absorption of the wife’s identity into her husband’s career and public persona. Joe Castleman is an author on the tail end of his career, and he and his wife Joan fly to Helsinki to attend a prize ceremony which will give Joe a prestigious award along with a large sum of money. The novel opens with the couple on the plane and with Joan deciding that she’s fed up with Joe and her marriage.
“Will you have some cookies, Mr. Castleman?” a brunette [stewardess] asked him, leaning over with a pair of tongs, and as her breasts slid forward and then withdrew. I could see the ancient mechanism of arousal start to whir like a knife sharpener inside him, a sight I’ve witnessed thousands of times over the decades. “Mrs Castleman?” the woman asked me then, in afterthought, but I declined. I didn’t want her cookies or anything else.
Now age 64, Joan is going to leave her 71-year-old husband. Joe was Joan’s married professor when they met in 1956, and just a few meetings in his office led to sex. According to Joe, his first wife, Carol was “insane. Locked-ward certifiable,” but the affair ‘freed’ him from marriage and brand-new fatherhood. Even though Joe walked out on Carol and new baby Fanny, for years he got mileage out of the idea of the tragic loss of a relationship with his daughter. Over the years, Joan has come to understand that Joe’s display of more introspective, sensitive emotions are simply for show: his ‘anguish’ about losing his baby daughter, supposed ‘sensitivity’ towards women, and he “always did self-doubt very well.” When a writer appears to shows such great sensitivity and understanding towards his subjects, it’s easy, as readers, to assume that he is actually that sensitive and caring in person. But in reality, it’s all about Joe. Always has been. Always will.
The book follows the trajectory of the Castleman’s marriage–a relationship which is established immediately with Joan as Joe’s helpmeet, cheerleader, and general fan. Yet Joan’s first glance at Joe’s early story is a shock. It’s shallow and cliched, but Joan doesn’t tell him it’s crap, because after all she exists as a mirror to reflect back Joe’s monolithic ego. Joan supported Joe after he lost his college position, and so it became very necessary to Joan that Joe succeed–that all the mess, sacrifice (her own writing) and upheaval was actually worth it. Joe’s first novel, The Walnut, a huge success, was “pure autobiography.” His success continued for decades, but his last two novels have been mediocre and his popularity, his relevance, is fading.
Yet critics had always admired Joe’s vision of contemporary American marriage, which seemed to plumb the female sensibility as thoroughly as it did the male, but amazingly without venom, without blame. And early on in his career, his novels had made the leap into Europe, where he was considered even more important than in the States. Joe’s work was from the old, postwar “marital” school–husbands and wives stranded in tiny apartments or boxy, drafty colonials in suburban streets with names like Bethany Court or Yellow Swallow Drive. The men were deep but sour, the women, sad and lovely, the children disaffected. The families were crumbling, full of factions, American. Joe included his own life, using details from his childhood, his early adulthood and then his two marriages.
Joan and Joe eventually have three children–and of course they exist only to extend, brighten or tease out Joe’s image for his friends and public. Joan, who has already sacrificed any sort of career to be Joe’s personal sounding board/ therapist/pimp, also sacrifices her relationships with her children to follow Joe around the globe. Yes no wonder their marriage is successful, because it’s all about Joe, and if Joan ever took her foot off that pedal, she would go the way of Carol in a heartbeat.
The Castleman’s marriage seems a success to outsiders, mainly because it continues, but it continues with intense repeat humiliations for Joan, with her turning a blind eye to innumerable affairs. By the time I was halfway into the book, I was waiting for the big scene where Joan told Joe what a dickhead he is, but then again she doesn’t exactly have the moral high ground. Like every marriage, it’s complicated, and Joan is, at times, complicit in Joe’s tackier behaviour–helping Joe with his ‘research’ on prostitutes and even orgies. …The tremendously disappointing ending undermined the book’s entire message. The story jettisoned from the launch pad with marital fury and fizzed, anticlimactically, with keeping up that old, stale image of a united marital front. With Joe’s gigantic ego and intense selfishness, I waited for him to get his comeuppance, but alas I was destined for disappointment, although there are hints of a possible future revenge.