This book was written 15 years ago, but a film adaptation was released this summer, so I decided to read the book before seeing the movie.
Joan and Joe Castleman are enroute to Helsinki where Joe is to receive a prestigious literary award. Joan has decided to leave her husband and plans to inform him of her decision at an opportune time. In the meantime, she tells the story of her marriage beginning with their first encounter in 1956. A promising writer, she abandons a career when she falls in love with her creative writing professor. Joe becomes a successful writer but their marriage is not always happy: Joe is a serial philanderer who ignores his children and obsesses about his reputation as a writer instead. Joe and Joan share a major secret which the reader learns at the end.
The secret is not really a surprise because there are so many clues. Besides the obvious hints, what is not said also serves as a clue. Joan speaks little about herself and so the reader starts to fill in gaps. Her personality, however, is developed in detail. She is intelligent but self-effacing. She lets Joe take the limelight he so enjoys while she stays in the background and takes on the role of the supportive wife.
Of course, Joe’s personality is also revealed. He is self-centered and vain. His fame has only bolstered his ego and he constantly yearns for recognition in the form of literary awards and the adulation of fans. We see Joe primarily through Joan’s eyes so there may be some bias in her portrayal, but when he appears, his words and actions confirm her observations. Though he is “one of those men who own the world” (10), he is a petulant boy “who had no idea of how to take care of himself or anyone else” (11).
Naturally, Joan’s role is to take care of him and the family. As she points out, “Everyone needs a wife; even wives need wives. Wives tend, they hover. Their ears are twin sensitive instruments, satellites picking up the slightest scrape of dissatisfaction. Wives bring broth, we bring paper clips, we bring ourselves and our pliant, warm bodies. We know just what to say to the men who for some reason have a great deal of trouble taking consistent care of themselves or anyone else. ‘Listen,’ we say. ‘Everything will be okay.’ And then, as if our lives depend on it, we make sure it is” (184).
This is not the role she initially envisions for herself when she attaches herself to Joe “in an early fit of girlish optimism” (160) believing that Joe “was the important one, and I was unfinished. He could finish me . . . he could provide the things I needed to actually become a whole person” (63). When she is young and imagines becoming a writer, she is warned about the sad future for women writers; she is told emphatically that she won’t be able to get the attention of the men: “’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. . . . I guess you could call it a conspiracy to keep the women’s voices hushed and tiny and the men’s voices loud. . . . There’s only a handful of women who get anywhere. Short story writers, mostly, as if maybe women are somehow more acceptable in miniature. . . . But the men with their big canvases, their big books that try to include everything in them, their big suits, their big voices, are always rewarded more. They’re the important ones. And you want to know why? . . . Because they say so’” (53 – 54).
Joan is given this advice in the 1950s when men did indeed own the world. Things have changed and female writers are now as common as male writers, but the book provides a look at the recent past and shows that change has come slowly. It is not just the fewer opportunities for a career that were a problem. One of the Castleman daughters wonders why Joan doesn’t leave the marriage if she’s miserable and Joan responds with, “She knew nothing about this subculture of women who stayed, women who couldn’t logically explain their allegiances, who held tight because it was the thing they felt most comfortable doing . . . She didn’t understand the luxury of the familiar, the known” (82).
This is an engaging read. I loved Joan’s acerbic wit. Her final statement about her husband may surprise some readers but I interpret it as a way of her taking control of her narrative. Now I’m off to see how the film interprets the book.