Amazon recommended “The Interestings” by Meg Wolitzer to me, but $12.99 is too much to pay for an e-book, by my lights, unless it’s by an author whose work I already know. I’d never heard of Wolitzer (I had maybe heard of her mother, also a novelist, whose books may or may not have been on a vast recommended reading list handed out by the creative writing teacher I had as an undergraduate; I don’t remember — or maybe I saw them at a bookstore once or something).
I did click through to Meg Wolitzer’s other books, and found a few that were less than $4, including this one, “The Wife.” I happened to be in the “contemporary literary” notch of my rotation (it goes like this: contemporary literary, science fiction or fantasy, non-fiction, free Gutenberg classic, then back to contemporary literary), so I decided to give it a shot.
My contemporary lit reading was most intense in the late eighties. My touchstones: John Irving, Raymond Carver, Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson. So you see that I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. “Catching up” means understanding the field at large, not just enjoying things I already know I am going to enjoy. Reading random writers whose work is critically acclaimed but whose names are unknown to me is one way to do that. Right? So.
“The Wife” is about a successful, womanizing, Philip-Roth-like “big novel” writer, and his second wife, who had at one time wanted to be a writer, but gave it up to support his ambitions. The conflict comes out of the husband’s serial infidelity with college-age fangirls, and the wife’s professional resentment. The milieu is decidedly privileged: they meet at Smith College, where she’s a student and he’s a professor. They move to the Greenwich Village of the 50s, where they briefly live a “penniless” Bohemian lifestyle, hanging out with famous writers and roustabouts, until the husband’s career kicks into high gear. After that: dinner parties, academic functions, award banquets, and highballs. In the first few pages of Chapter One, the wife, now in her sixties, decides she wants to get a divorce, while sitting beside her husband in an airplane on their way to Finland, to pick up his biggest award yet. Most of the rest of the book is a flashback detailing their marriage history.
In a lot of ways, this is the “Wide Sargasso Sea” version of the kind of novels the husband undoubtedly writes, the feminist counter-narrative: what about that faithful, loyal (or crazy, bitter) wife (or ex-wife) who’s always there, off to the side, locked in the figurative attic, in any given Roth or Updike or Cheever book about a successful middle-aged-crazy man? Here’s what’s about her.
If Wolitzer wanted to sell us on the idea that female writers are not taken as seriously as male writers (which she does appear to want to do), then setting it in the 50s is kind of self-defeating. To discover that a Roth manque lives in a delusional world of male privilege is not surprising. Much more interesting if the husband and wife had been from our generation — how would a Jonathan Franzen or a Michael Chabon look to us from his wife’s (or ex-wife’s) perspective? I don’t mean to pick on those guys in particular. I’m just saying. As it is, we get to dismiss the sexism, if we are of a mind to: “Look at those silly ‘Madmen of literature’ from the middle of last century, ignoring the talented women in their midst. I’m glad that gender equality in the book world has been solved!” Which — I don’t think I even need to say this to you, but I will — it has not. Not even close. Yes, we have our Toni Morrisons and our Margaret Atwoods, just like the 50s had its Lillian Hellmans and Mary McCarthys, but for the most part the books women write get ignored, or praised faintly, dismissed as meditations on gender.
Which is kind of what I’ve done here, for example.
Despite all that, I didn’t mind reading it. I liked it okay. I doubt that I’ll read a lot more by Meg Wolitzer, but maybe.