The Wife

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by Meg Wolitzer

THE WIFE is a feminist horror story.

Joan Castleman, wife of much-lauded author Joseph Castleman, is seated in a first class seat on a Finnair flight to Helsinki when she decides she is going to divorce her husband.

The Castlemans are going to Finland so Joseph can collect the Helsinki Prize. It’s not as coveted as a Nobel Prize for Literature, but it is a major benchmark for a writer.

In Joan’s words, Joseph is “one of those men who own the world . . . those advertisements for themselves, those sleepwalking giants, roaming the earth and knocking over other men, women, furniture, villages.” This prize is his due, in his mind.

While Joseph has been “The Writer,” Joan has been “The Wife.” No prizes, Nobel or other, are given for being The Wife. At 64, Joan is facing the fact that her adult life has been spent taking care of this self-indulgent, swaggering man who is routinely unfaithful to her and was seldom available to his now grown children.

What’s harder to deal with are her memories of being a young woman at Smith College in 1956, of sitting in a library carrel writing a story that gave her joy and being told by her creative writing professor — the very Joseph Castleman she married — that she had talent.

But at every turn, she’s told that literature is a man’s world.  The quiet voice of her own stories will never be heard against the booming voices of male writers. At a reading, Joseph introduces her to the featured writer, Elaine Mozell, who writes with the boldness and frankness that men are known for. Joan admires her and tells her that she plans to buy the book and read the rest of it.

“Good for you, if you can find it,” she (Mozell) said. “I’m afraid you’ll have to dig through lots of piles of loud male songs of innocence and experience. And then maybe you’ll get to my little tale, buried at the bottom.”

Mozell is a loud, humorously bitter and heavy drinker. Later, she tells Joan not to expect attention as a woman writer. The literary world is controlled by men, Mozell says, “the men who write the reviews, who run the publishing houses, who edit the papers, the magazines, who decide who gets to be taken seriously, who gets put up on a pedestal for the rest of their lives. Who gets to be King Shit . . . you could call it a conspiracy to keep the women’s voices hushed and tiny and the men’s voices loud.”

Long before Joan needs to worry about publishers or reviewers, long before Joan ever has a chance to become a writer, much less a mature one, she tumbles into bed with Joseph. When his wife finds out, she creates a scene at Joan’s dorm. Joan ends up expelled; Joseph ends up fired.

Together, they have to find a way to survive. That leads them to the devil’s bargain at the heart of this book.

The Wife is not a 219-page screed against the male-dominated world of publishing and reviewing. But it is a sharp look at our — readers’ as well as publishers and reviewers — prejudices and biases about books, authors and gender.

Although well-written, there are points when this book borders on the predictable. Many of the questions about Joan’s long and unhappy marriage are answered at the the end of the book when the secret at the heart of the Castlemans’ relationship is revealed.

This is a sharp look at the darker side of fame and its high price of attainment.

This book was made into a well-received movie released in late August 2018 and starring Glenn Close, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance..

The Author: Meg Wolitzer (1958 – )

Meg Wolitzer is the daughter of Hilma Wolitzer, also a novelist, and Morton Wolitzer, a psychologist.

She sold her first story to a childen’s magazine when she was 11; won a number of writing competition and got the same internship at Mademoiselle magazine that Sylvia Path wrote about in The Bell Jar. She wrote her first novel, Sleepwalking, about three college girls obsessed with poetry and death, while still an undergraduate.  It was published in 1982. As of 2017, she had written 12 novels including Hidden Pictures, The Position, The Ten-Year Nap, The Interestings, Belzhar and The Female Persuasion.

Currently, she is an instructor in the master of fine arts program at Stony Brook Southampton and has taught creative writing at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, Skidmore College and as a guest artist at Princeton University.

She frequently writes about the underrepresentation of women in the literary world — on bookstore shelves, as reviewed authors and as book reviewers.

Three of her books have served as the basis for films: “This is My Life,” scripted and directed by Nora Ephron; the 2006 made-for-television movie, “Surrender, Dorothy.” and the 2017 drama, “The Wife,” starring Glenn Close.

She studied creative writing at Smith College and graduated from Brown University in 1981.


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