A promising writer, Joan abandons her own career in the service of her husband’s. Joe, meanwhile, roars through life. He chases other women, drinks vats of booze, torments himself over his literary stature and happily ignores his children. In relating all this, Wolitzer deploys a calm, seamless humor not found in her previous novels. The jokes don’t barge in and tap us on the shoulder as they did in “This Is Your Life” or “Surrender, Dorothy.” Instead, they gradually accumulate, creating a rueful, sardonic atmosphere. “Wives,” Joan tells us in a typical aside, “are the sad sacks of any writers’ conference.” She is just as sharp on Joe’s self-involvement:
“The men who own the world don’t get to do that by being magnanimous and overly interested in other people. They get to do it by taking care of themselves along the way. They stoke the fire of their own reputations, and sometimes other people come by, asking: What’s that you’re doing there?
“Oh, stoking the fire of my reputation.
“Can I help?
“Certainly. Go get some wood.”
Eventually, Joan lets us in on the Castlemans’ secret. And once we know the truth, we want to go back and examine the carapace of justification, blind-eye-turning and bitter regret that is Joan’s history as a wife. The book represents a real step forward for Wolitzer, and its success lies in its reticence. Joan defiantly leaves us wanting more, whereas Wolitzer’s other heroines left us wanting maybe a teensy bit less. As a portrait of deception, this small, intelligently made novel rivals “The Dangerous Husband,” by Jane Shapiro, and John Lanchester’s “Debt to Pleasure.”
But if “The Wife” is a puzzle and an entertainment, it’s also a near heartbreaking document of feminist realpolitik. In the modernist milieu the Castlemans inhabit, to be a woman writer is automatically to be lesser, to produce work faintly praised as “powerful in its own right.” Oh, there are exceptions, notably Mary McCarthy. She appears here as a kind of Lady Writer fetish object that the male writers finger when they want to demonstrate an appreciation of the weaker sex. “But what,” Joan asks, “happened to the talented women who lacked sharp cheekbones or an ease in the universe?” She herself is the answer to this question. The central event of the book is a nonevent: the moment when Joan Castleman gave up her own writing to be a wife.