AS soon as the women’s movement rose up from an atmosphere of longing and resentment, daughters looked over their shoulders and asked their mothers, “How could you have lived the way you did, pretending, biting the insides of your cheeks, making it easy for men to own everything?” Elders like Grace Paley and Dorothy Dinnerstein were out the door with the daughters, raising hell. Lee Krasner remained ambivalent, marching to level the playing field for women artists but refusing to loosen her vise grip on the role of Great Man’s wife. Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt snickered at feminists who threatened to erase — like footprints in sand — the category of glittering exception in which the two had established their power. Elizabeth Hardwick was so aggrieved by rivalrous female ambition that she published “Seduction and Betrayal,” in which, writing about Hedda Gabler, she urged women to find purpose for their intellects by nurturing the talents of wounded men.
As if responding to Hardwick, Meg Wolitzer’s sixth novel, “The Wife” — a rollicking, perfectly pitched triumph — charts the folly of such a course and deftly surveys the motives of a woman who could plot it. Joan Ames tells her story as an apology, an explanation, and as the first book she’ll sign with her own name. It’s the story of a writer’s life almost erased by lies, though whining and blame have been purged from her voice. She is wry, reflective. Like Kafka’s ape in “A Report to the Academy” — who explains how he learned to impersonate a human being and weighs the gains and losses of his transformation — Joan unfolds the process of becoming a perfect wife.
The tale begins in midair. Joan and her famous novelist husband, Joe Castleman, are flying to Helsinki, where he is to receive a $525,000 prize for his life’s work and she will announce her plan to leave him. Their three children, each charred in a different way by the insatiable furnace of their father’s career, have limped into their own lives. Joe’s dependence on Joan has long ceased to make her feel needed and has turned into an indictment of his character and of hers for being beguiled by it. She found it sexy the way he kept her close, burrowed under her skin, drained her responses, impressions and intellect. His sense of entitlement to use the stuff of her worked like a spell on both of them.
To track how this happened, Joan takes us to their early days when, in 1956, she was a Smith College undergraduate and he was a creative writing teacher with a wife, a new baby and a hunger to be recognized that was so intense it made people think he actually wanted them. He tells Joan she can write, and she unfolds for him. But she’s shy, and she’s been cautioned that for a woman to elbow her way into the literary world she’ll need to line her sleeves with razors, and even then she’ll likely be trivialized as a freak. So when Joe suggests sex, she bends to her teacher. When they go to New York together, she decides his career will launch them both. When it turns out he has no ability, she supplies the remedy — how she does this is best left for the reader to discover.
Wolitzer’s talent for comedy of manners reaches a heady high in Joan, a narrator who, at 64, is so past being shocked by human excesses that she’s gained the detachment to study them, and so energized by coming clean that her acidity burns with a kind of lyricism. Watching her obsessively unfaithful husband interact with a stewardess, Joan sees the “ancient mechanism of arousal start to stir like a knife sharpener inside him.” Noting how his chest expands when he’s admired, she sees his aching pride as “a troubling, distant relative of heart attacks.” In bed, trying to relieve his anxieties, he advances on one of her breasts but she nonetheless feels her “nipple collect itself into an obedient knot.” Serving him up on a platter, she lists the ingredients of the dish: “You know the type I mean: Those advertisements for themselves, those sleepwalking giants, roaming the earth and knocking over other men, women, furniture, villages…. Joe was the writer version, a short, wound-up, slack-bellied novelist who almost never slept, who loved to consume runny cheeses and whiskey and wine, all of which he used as a vessel to carry the pills that kept his blood lipids from congealing like yesterday’s pan drippings, who was as entertaining as anyone I have ever known, who had no idea of how to take care of himself or anyone else, and who derived much of his style from The Dylan Thomas “Handbook of Personal Hygiene and Etiquette.’ ” Joan knows how to craft a book, moving back and forth in time, dropping clues on a need-to-know basis, laying in psychological complexity as she circles key crime scenes: the time Joe’s first wife came to see her, the night she first read one of Joe’s clumsy stories, the party at which Joe tried to strangle his best friend, Lev Bresner, a man as much respected as he is secretly lampooned for writing about nothing but the Holocaust. Wolitzer has the time of her life evoking the blowhard culture of ambitious male writers who live to joust with one another, and the sideline culture of the women who watch, wither and sometimes explode. Joan navigates the torpor of those women and the flock of Smith sheep in which she was herded, creatures so aware they are being kept separate from the world that matters and so dependent, they dare not walk across campus alone “for fear of tipping over if not propped up.”
Joan’s explanation for her choices is that she loves passivity, mainlines it. She knows there are women achieving in the world, and their efforts mock her. “I was meek,” she owns up. “I had no courage. I wasn’t a pioneer. I was shy. I wanted things but was ashamed to want them. I was a girl, and I couldn’t shake this feeling even as I had contempt for it.” Joan sees herself as complicit in the grotesqueries of her marriage (all the details of which are best savored in the text), but as is typical of this narrator, she explores less her own inner life than her husband’s, and so the reader is shown less about the addictive allure of passivity than of gluttony. You may find yourself wondering how the woman who could write this book would have wanted Joe Castleman at any stage of her life, or you may find yourself believing she could.
Wolitzer’s unqualified achievement is creating satire that’s purged of sentimentality and that seeks to protect nothing. Not marriage, not family life, not traditional arrangements between the sexes, not any of the stations we arrive at after boarding the desire train. “The Wife” is an obituary for the ways men and women have functioned together in the past. It thanks the female artists who paved the way for a writer like the author herself. For a woman to write, said Virginia Woolf, she had to kill “the angel in the house,” meaning the part of her that grooved on martyrdom and stillness. For a woman to become known to herself now, Wolitzer says, she has to jettison her romance with being number two.