“The moment I decided to leave him, the moment I thought, enough, we were thirty-five thousand feet above the ocean, hurtling forward but giving the illusion of stillness and tranquility.”
I hesitate to tell you much about this novel. The flap copy doesn’t sound exciting, and even Meg Wolitzer’s pedigree might not convince some people to pick this one up. But any novel that starts with a wife deciding to leave her husband of 40 years while on an airplane to Helsinki is one that probably deserves a second look. It is about marriage. It is about relationships. It is about how marriage and relationships do not always go hand in hand.
Joan Castleman, once a student of her famous novelist husband Joe Castleman, has spent the better part of her life building a family for her husband and supporting his career. When the novel begins, they are on their way to Helsinki so that Joe can collect his longed-for Helsinki Prize, sort of a lesser Nobel Prize. The action of The Wife takes place over just a few days, but the flashbacks cover decades, and we learn what has led to both the pinnacle of Joe’s career and Joan’s decision to leave him.
Wolitzer is a master at character study. She is so honest and dead-on with human thought and emotion. Any reader will be able to easily imagine themselves as the protagonist because she gets everything so right. The downright depressing moments are so because they are truthful. The whole novel is at once funny and tragic. (Her description of the NYC hotel room in chapter 3 made me laugh and cringe, it was so visceral in good and horrifying ways.)
Even for a quiet novel, there is a twist. I did guess part of it early on, but it was incredibly satisfying to have it confirmed in the last 20 pages. It was a quiet build to an explosive ending, and I didn’t see all of it coming. The Wife is character driven, so if thrill-a-minute, plot-driven stories are what you usually reach for this might not be the book for you. (I still say give it a chance!) But if you enjoy witty writing and full, rich characters, move this one to the top of your to be read list! (And I just found out that it has been made into a movie with Glenn Close that should be released this year, so get to reading if you want to fit it in before the movie comes out!)