What’s with Wives?

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Maybe it’s because I’ve just celebrated a significant anniversary, and I’ve been musing about love and marriage and relationships for the past week. Maybe. But it seems to me that I’m seeing wives everywhere. Not actual wives. But books about wives, or plays and television shows about wives, with “wives” referenced in the title. I mean, what’s with wives these days?

The Merry Wives of Windsor on stage at the Stratford Festival this year.
Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor on stage at the Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ontario, 2019.

Of course this isn’t new. Take Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath or Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. Or even Louisa May Allcott’s Good Wives, for instance. These are famous titles from the past that everyone knows. And over the generations there have been more books and pamphlets than you can shake a stick at with “Good Wife” in the title. Mostly providing advice on “how to be one.” But, I don’t want to go there. And there’s the well known television series “The Good Wife,” which is definitely not to be confused with advice on “how to be a good wife.” Ha. And of course there are all those “Real Housewives of … Wherever” reality TV shows. Ickk. I don’t want to go there either.

My friend Barb said something about the wife thing the other day in a book club e-mail. How we seem to be reading a lot of books about wives. And I wondered, at the time, if “wives” are the new “girls.” As in all those “girl” titles a couple of years ago: Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, The Lost Girls. Did it start with Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, do you think? But I digress.

I actually wanted to talk about some of these recent books about wives. Like The Paris Wife, which is a wonderful book, in my opinion. It’s the fictionalized story of Ernest Hemingway, his shy, first wife Hadley, and their life together, set mostly in Paris in the twenties, and told from Hadley’s point of view. If you haven’t read it, you must. Paula McLain is a fabulous writer, an extremely thorough researcher, and she really, really knows her Hemingway. I wrote about her work in a post called Reading Round the Subject, if you’re interested. I suggest that before you read McLain’s fictional version, you read A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir of the same period. Reading round the subject, as a character in one of Kate Atkinson’s books says.

We read The Paris Wife a few years ago in our book club. This year we’ll be reading The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin. The Aviator’s Wife, which has been compared to The Paris Wife, is the story of Charles Lindbergh’s wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and their life together. Like Hadley Hemingway, she is described as “self-effacing and passive,” and “willing to stand in the tall shadow” of her famous, and domineering husband. Benjamin’s book takes us from the early years of the Lindbergh marriage, the scandal and media frenzy around the kidnapping and murder of their eldest child, and through their tumultuous life together. Benjamin’s book had great reviews and spent some time on the best seller list. Ironically not as long as Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s own 1955 book. Gift from the Sea apparently spent 46 weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list.

When I was doing my research on the book, I was interested to find a wide range of reviews of The Aviator’s Wife on Good Reads. Many readers rave about Benjamin’s book. Anne Morrow Lindbergh was a well educated, accomplished woman, she became a well known literary figure, and several readers feel Benjamin missed the mark in conveying her character, underplaying her intelligence, her “spirit and courage.” Other reviews, unfairly I think, criticize the fictionalized character of Anne Morrow Lindbergh for deferring to her husband, and not taking charge of her own life when she was clearly so capable. Perhaps they expected a different outcome than history provides. I remember readers saying the same thing about Hadley Hemingway, in Paris Wife. And like Hemingway, Benjamin’s character is a historical figure; how can a writer be expected to make the woman other than what she really was?

I’ll decide for myself soon. Like I did with The Paris Wife, I’m going to read some of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s own non-fiction about her life, as well as the fictional. She’s published several volumes of journals, letters, and memoirs. To start me off, I’ve ordered her book A Gift from the Sea, as well as Melanie Benjamin’s The Aviator’s Wife. I plan to pack them for our holiday in Quebec and New Brunswick in August. So I’ll be reading round the subject while we drive across the country. Or, at least, halfway across the country.

The other book about a wife on our book club list is Tanis Rideout’s Above All Things. Rideout is a Canadian writer primarily known for her poetry; this is her first novel. Above All Things is the story of British mountain climber George Mallory, his wife Ruth, and Mallory’s third and final attempt to summit Mount Everest in 1924. Rideout’s plot alternates between Mallory and his young companion, Sandy Irvine, as they battle for the summit, and Ruth waiting at home. Choosing flowers for a dinner party, doing the laundry, and waiting for word of her husband, not knowing, in that earlier time before satellite phones and Instagram, that she was already a widow.

Reviewers describe Rideout’s work as “elegant”, with “precise language and perfect pacing.” This is an adventure story, and a love story, and one that deals with the question of whether love and marriage can compete with the “romance of adventure.” Like Diana Princess of Wales once famously said, “There were three of us in this marriage. So it was a bit crowded.” So too was Ruth Mallory’s marriage a bit crowded, except she was competing with a mountain, with Mallory’s obsession to conquer Everest.

You can hear Tanis Rideout herself speak about, and read a passage from, her book in the video below.

One reviewer describes Above All Things as “The Paris Wife meets Into Thin Air,” which made me laugh. The Paris Wife… again. Mallory’s frozen body was finally found on Everest in 1999, seventy-five years after his fatal climb. And three years after the ill-fated Everest climb described in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Krakauer, in his book, looks at the complex chain of events that lead to so many deaths on the mountain that day in 1996. And according to one reviewer, Rideout does something similar. She examines the interplay of personality, obsession, drive, and the series of disastrous choices which lead the Mallory’s death. Both books are compelling, apparently. I almost ruined our vacation one year because I couldn’t put Krakauer’s book down, I was so engrossed. Rideout’s novel now tops my summer reading list. But I think I’ll try to read it before we leave home.

You wouldn’t believe the plethora of books there are out there with “wife” or “wives” in the title. I still don’t get what’s with that. Of course there are trends in book titles. Hence the “girl” books. And remember all those absurdly long titles from a few years ago, in the vein of “The Old Man who Did Something Stupid and Then Something Weird Happened?” Those were just annoying, I thought.

Now before I go, I must tell you a funny kismet kind of thing.

Since I’ve been working on this post, I’ve been reading Kate Atkinson’s latest Jackson Brodie novel, Big Sky. I’m really enjoying it, although it starts off a bit slow. In this latest Brodie book, the character of Reggie, all grown up, reappears. The same character who was featured in an earlier book in the series, When Will There Be Good News. It was young Reggie who kept saying she was “reading round the subject.” Well, she was quoting her tutor, to be exact. The tutor who loved Hemingway, and made Reggie read “seminal texts,” including one of my favourite Hemingway stories “A Clean Well-Lighted Place.” I remember writing about that Brodie book, and the character of Reggie, when I wrote that earlier post on Paula McLain and her book The Paris Wife.

And now, just as I’m writing about The Paris Wife again, Jackson Brodie, and Reggie, and reading round the subject are all back.

See? Kismet. Everything comes back to Hemingway. Like six degrees of separation. You should have seen Hubby roll his eyes when I told him that. “Suz, everything always comes back to Hemingway with you.” Ha. Like he hasn’t said that one before.

Now, what about you my friends? What are you reading these days? Any books about wives?

As you probably know by now, I have an affiliate relationship with Amazon. All the books I review can be found on Amazon. If you purchase a book by clicking on one of my links I will receive a small commission. Thanks for doing that, by the way.

Here are all the links to books in this post: Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife. Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. Kate Atkinson’s Big Sky and When Will There Be Good News. Melanie Benjamin’s The Aviator’s Wife. Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea. Tanis Rideout’s Above All Things. Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air.

Linking up with # Share All Link Up and Thursday Favourite Things.

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42 thoughts on “What’s with Wives?”

  1. A great post – I shall read it in more detail later. But amused, as we have just booked tickets to see The Provoked Wife by the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon – a Restoration comedy by Vanbrugh from the 18th century – so ‘wife’ in the title’s been around a while!

    1. Yep, lots of “wife tales” from days gone by. I saw a clip from the RSC’s production of Merry Wives of Windsor, from a couple of years ago, on You Tube. It was hilarious.

  2. This post struck a chord, as I have just finished American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. It was a gift, and at 636 pages was falling to the bottom of the pile. For various reasons I picked it up and flew through it – so enjoyable, and I have next to zero interest in politics. The wife is the First Lady and it is based around the bare bones of Laura Bush’s story. I understand the book created quite a kerfuffle when it was published as LB is very much alive and how far should liberties be taken in the name of art, etc. Being a Brit I was slightly removed from these concerns and it is highly recommended as a gripping page-turner – plus I can’t wait to read Ms Sittenfeld’s other books.

  3. I am reading what you are reading! Coming to the end of Big Sky and wondering what next. You have decided for me, so it will be The Aviator’s Wife and Above All Things.
    I too like to read around a subject and Into Thin Air is of particular interest as an acquaintance’s husband (see what I did there?) was on that expedition as recently reminded by another acquaintance. Not read it, so it to goes on the list. I am having my own little bit of Kismet.

    1. I did see what you did there.:) I presume your acquaintance’s husband came home safely. So many didn’t. I’m reading Big Sky verrry slowly. I waited so long for it I don’t want it to be over too soon.

  4. What a fascinating topic. I hate the word “girl” unless it refers to a female under the age of 19. “The Woman With a Dragon Tattoo” would be a different animal, no? Girl smacks of innocence and vulnerability. “Gone Girl” probably was chosen for the alliteration, though the girl in question was reduced to one even in adulthood by her parents, who wrote childrens’ stories based on her. “Wife” carries similar baggage–a woman whose impulses/hopes/desires are constrained by a man, who will loom as large or larger than her in the story. “Woman” tends to be used when the character is a bad one. How sad. Charles Lindbergh seems to have been a horrible person, but Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s book is uplifting, a treasure of hope. How did those two ever end up together?
    One Hemingway wife whose bio always drives me nuts is Martha Gelhorn, one of the first female foreign correspondents, who dragged Ernie to Spain to see the civil war. But never mind all that–almost invariably the first and sometimes only thing noted about her is her brief marriage to Hemingway.

    1. A former student who works in the book industry said something (disdainfully) about the saleability of books with “girl” in the title after Gone Girl. I started getting into the “baggage” in the word wife in my post and then deleted it. I was hiving off in a whole other direction and who knew how long that post would be. Ha. Martha Gelhorn herself was driven nuts by being referred to as Hemingway’s wife. She said she didn’t want to be a footnote in someone else’s life. I love her.

  5. Wendy in York

    Biographies & especially autobiographies are probably my favourite reading . Not just famous people , which are often fascinating , but I can find ‘ unfamous ‘ people equally fascinating . Consequently I’m a little uncomfortable with this new ? genre of biographical novels . I don’t know whether to treat it as fact or fiction . I’m currently reading the second of John Farrow’s Storm Trilogy which is coincidentally set in your New Brunswick ( three bodies so far ) but the next in the book pile is autobiographical . Gloucester Crescent by William Miller , son of Jonathan , describing his childhood living in the Gloucester Crescent literary circle with neighbour Alan Bennett popping in , amongst others . Perhaps the Lady in the Van will make an appearance . Getting good reviews so we’ll see . I’ve read a number of books on the residents of the Crescent – reading round the subject as you say .
    PS I agree with the previous commenter Martha Gelhorn had a fascinating life . Loved her book ‘Travels With Myself & Another ‘

    1. Oh… that’s the John Farrow book set on Grand Manan Island. I read that too and didn’t think he quite caught the essence of Grand Manan. It’s a lovely island. My friend’s mum still lives there and Stu and I visit her ever few years. I’ve never heard of Gloucester Crescent. I must explore more. My problem is that I’m so busy adding books and exploring possibilities.. I never get around to reading. My friend and I saw Lady in the Van on stage in London in 2000… with Maggie Smith. So thrilling to see her on stage in person.

  6. I love your book recomendation posts! Loved, loved The Paris Wife, as I love all things Paris and all things Hemingway. Read it in tandem with A Moveable Feast, many years ago. I also highly recommend Love and Ruin, about Hemingway and Martha Gelhorn. There’s lots of rich read-around material there, as Gelhorn was also a writer.

    Will put The Aviator’s Wife on my to-read list as well as Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Big Sky made it onto our book club list for the coming year, and it was not one of my choices, but will now read it with an open mind :~).

    1. I read Love and Ruin, and really liked it. I didn’t love it as much as Paris Wife, though. I read Travels With Myself and Another first and was amazed at how Paula McLain captured Gelhorn’s voice in Love and Ruin. If you get a chance before you read Big Sky… read some of her earlier Jackson Brodie books. She makes so many references back to earlier books in Big Sky, especially to events in When Will There Be Good News?

  7. Yes! Firstly, those irritating long and facetious book titles. I veer away in opposite direction if I see them. Now, wives. I posit that people are fascinated by wives because they think: what on earth do they do? If you are, or were, only known as a wife, how do you carve out an existence with meaning? What happens if you are no longer a wife? Once, the wife’s existence was pretty much a mystery to those who left her at home and got on with their own lives, coming home again at the end of the day. And, yes, how unfair it is to bring women from the past under own present microscopes and find them wanting. The laws have changed so much, as have societal expectations and opportunities, that criticism is unfounded. And smug, in some cases. I am about to start a biography of Penelope Fitzgerald and am looking forward to it very much.

    1. Oh we could talk all day about that loaded word “wife” I think. I started to go down that road in my post and deleted a whole paragraph. I’m interested to read The Aviator’s Wife to see how well Melanie Banjamin has captured Anne Morrow Lindgergh. So many constraints when you write about a real life character who has their own published works. Paula McLain did a great job recreating Martha Gelhorn in Love and Ruin. But I remember the Mitford Murders book from last year… that was a disaster, I thought.

  8. Interestingly, my book is reading “An Autopsy of a Boring Wife” by Marie-Renee Lavoie. She’s an author from Quebec and we read the more recent English translation. It is a summer read for sure. It is hilarious. It is not about a strong historical woman, but a woman who’s husband has left her, saying their marriage has turned boring, amongst other things. A quick read, but sticks with this idea that “the wife” is becoming…interesting.

  9. Regarding those odd long title books, I highly recommend “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared”. It’s fabulous.
    And I enjoyed both the Paris Wife and Into Thin Air.

    Currently reading, Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus….by Ruby Warrington (so so, not sure I’ll finish it)
    Soon to be reading, Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, placed on hold April 1 2019 (#167 on 25 copies) so I will stick with that as I don’t want to renew!
    Thanks for the recommendations! Suz from Vancouver

  10. I very much enjoyed reading Anne Morrow Lindbergh: Her Life, by Susan Hertog. Based on five years of interviews with AML and I believe the definitive bio of her. I read it because after I read Lindbergh by A. Scott Berg (also a definitive bio??) I was curious about AMH. I’m not sure it’s possible to make a judgment about her and her conduct in her marriage without understanding the other partner.

    I put the question mark after Berg’s bio (published in 1999) as “definitive” because although it won a Pulitzer, it later came out (2005) that CAL actually had seven children in Europe by three different women and Berg (and CAL’s American family) evidently had NO idea. So Berg either missed something important or his bio was a puff piece.

  11. Interesting. I am reading The River, just read The Almost Sisters, Us Against You, Blood Money and The Lost Man is next up, probably. I could change my reading mind or a hold at the library could come up.

    1. I have to stop making book lists, I think. Or planning too much. Sometimes I wait for months for a book from the library and when it finally comes in my interest has moved elsewhere. I’d be interested ti hear how you like (or don’t like) The Lost Man.

  12. Many years ago I read all of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s diaries which cover her life from the time she met Charles, through the kidnapping, the pre and post war years, and more. I have not read The Aviator’s Wife”, but those diaries were her personal account of how she functioned in that marriage. Obviously, her own achievements were always overshadowed by Lindbergh, but her story is fascinating on its own. When I read “Gifts from the Sea”, it seemed so tame compared to the diaries, as if she had written a lovely term paper about life and marriage. It was recently revealed that Lindbergh actually had not one, but two families outside of his marriage to Anne! Unfortunately, like many of our “heroes” in life, he was very tarnished as a human being and as the truth is revealed we are so let down and outraged, always wondering how a woman could be married to such a horrid person. The role of a wife, allowing her man to have his spotlight and glory over her own achievements, was so common in that era, and still happening. I agree with Annie Green that it is unfair to bring women who lived in the past under our current societal microscopes. For me, the diaries opened up a path of reading round the subject, as Anne rubbed elbows with many of the most interesting characters in history at the time and I was compelled to learn more. Thanks for this post and I always enjoy your reading suggestions!!

    1. I enjoy historical fiction, and get so exasperated with people who expect a writer to change history to suit a more modern perspective. I’ve had second thoughts about Gifts from the Sea since I wrote the post last night, and have ordered one of her journal/memoir selections instead.

  13. I’m so excited to hear that Reggie’s back!
    Honestly, I can’t get with all the wife books — clearly, there are some that demonstrate the value of that upending of perspective, but for me the concept’s been done to death, and there are so many other interesting potential female protagonists. . .
    You (or your book club) might be interested in (friend and former neighbour) Maria Coffey’s very well-reviewed books, The Fragile Edge and Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow. The former is about her journey to visit the site where her mountaineer boyfriend died, his body never recovered; the latter, as its subtitle indicates about the “dark side of extreme adventuring.” Very well written, fascinating studies . . .

    1. I guess I’m late to the “wife” party. I had not noticed there were so many books about wives, except Paula McLain’s two books about Hemingway’s wives. My book club hadn’t noticed that we were choosing so many “wife” books until my friend mentioned it. I’d be interested in reading either of those books you suggest. Especially in light of the continuing disaster that is Everest.

  14. I really liked The Aviator’s Wife, and I remember my mom giving me Gift from the Sea when I was struggling in my 30’s. It was interesting, but in light of what we now know of Lindberg and his life, I can’t imagine what she went through. It seems to be that she bore a lot without complaint.

    On one of our trips to Hawaii, we drove around the back of Maui and come upon Charles Lindbergh’s grave. It’s in a really beautiful location, but I was curious about him being there alone. Now it makes more sense, since his double life was revealed. Intrigue!

    I read Into Thin Air when it came out and it was riveting! Like a frightening novel that I couldn’t put down. I remember my hands sweating even though the outcome was known. I love Krakauer’s writing. He’s kind of disappeared but I also thought Under the Banner of Heaven was really compelling.

    Love your book posts!

    1. Now that you mention it I haven’t heard about Jon Krakauer lately. I read Into the Wild, after Into Thin Air. It was well written but I found he subject exasperating. Waste of a young life. I love finding graves and such sites when we are travelling, especially if I’ve read about the person. When we were in France we took a half a day tracking down the grave of WWI poet Wilfred Owen.

  15. As always love your book posts which have insightful reviews of books. I have read the some of the Lindbergh ones and also The Aviator’s Wife and The Paris Wife and enjoyed them all. Will have to check out the ones mentioned about Everest. Although not about wives in quite the same way I highly recommend Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters. It was also turned into a tv drama which is very well done. I am currently trying to read Varina by Charles Frazier about the wife of Jefferson Davis. Maybe I am not in quite the right mood or something but not enjoying this as much as his previous novels.

    1. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever read Gaskell’s books. I should, though. I must see if they are on Audible. I loved listening to Jane Austen’s books on Audible. With the right narrator of course.

  16. Reading your article reminded me of a novel I read many years ago All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West. The story of a good wife and a timely reminder we are never to old to start again.

  17. I always read round the subject,so you never know where would it go….
    I’ve finished The Girls,The Wives mentioned here sound very interesting
    I’m enjoying your last (renewed?) recommendations-Peter May…are his non Hebrides books interesting as well? Isle of Lewis plays such an interesting and important part….mesmerizing!
    Dottoressa

    1. I liked Peter May’s Entry Island, part of which takes place in Canada, and Coffin Road. And I loved Runaway. I was disappointed with his latest novel, I’ll Keep You Safe, though. I tried one of the Enzo Files series and didn’t like it so I didn’t persist with any others.

  18. Thanks for noting (in your response to a comment) that you recommend reading When Will There Be Good News? before starting Big Sky. I just got the latter from the library but have not started it, so I went to Hoopla and now have the former on my tablet as an audiobook–hopefully will get both finished in the time left. Also, agree with you that waiting so long for some library books that by the time you receive them, you’ve either lost interest in them/subject or you find you simply don’t care for the writing and can’t be bothered to finish them. Have had that happen any number of times.

    1. Oh, I’m glad you did that. One of the main reasons I’m enjoying Big Sky so much is that I know Jackson Brodie’s history and the allusions to the last book make sense to me.

  19. I’m alternating a multi volume collection of Eleanor Roosevelt’s letters with a YA fantasy series – when ER gets too serious I dip into the fantasy froth. Not very portable reading but its working while I hide from the heat.

    ceci

  20. Barbara Ralph

    Hi Sue, great blog! I am a committed “read around it” reader (although I had never thought to put a name to it). Sometimes I stray so far away from the original inspiration, I wonder how I got there! I remember getting so involved with Sylvia Plath years ago, it was like I had set up my own English course on the subject. I think I read every letter, every poem, every diary she had ever kept, and then moved on to her husband’s. I read Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gifts From the Sea after reading The Aviator’s Wife because I wanted to hear Anne’s own voice, but I was a bit disappointed. It seemed quite contrived. But I have ordered Against Wind and Tide. Biographies are tricky, especially in the form of historical fiction. They leave me with a kind of uneasy feeling at the creative license that writers can take with their subject. Wherein lies the truth?

    1. Oh, I’ve been on that path too, Barb. And with Sylvia Plath as well. Started with the Bell Jar, which I adored. I agree about he historical fiction, but I am so bad at finishing biographies. Unless they are of someone who already fascinates me.

  21. I thoroughly enjoyed The Paris Wife and now I’ll have to look for The Aviator’s Wife as well as some of the others that you mention. Right now I’m reading King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild. It’s a heavy read about colonial Africa… interesting, but perhaps not the best choice for a summer read!

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