The words we use in English for spouses of opposite gender do not simply indicate sex (e.g., “epouse” and “mari” in French), but also denote a power system that dates back to when the word “husband” came into common use around the 13th century. Previously, the verb “to husband” meant to carefully use or manage something, such as a resource, and was often used in the context of breeding animals and farming land. When the concept of romantic love became a popular trend in medieval Europe, authorities married it to (see what I did there?) the idea that someone had to be “In Charge.” Guess who it got to be?
We’ve been living with inequality between husbands and wives ever since (and beforehand, too, but the words were different). Husbands were legally their wives’ owners until the 19th century. While I’m here to write about books and not give you a long history lesson, I think all of this is important to the two stories I’m writing about today.
My Frontlist title, which came out just a few months ago, is The Headmaster’s Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene. Bear with me while I sketch out the plot, which has everything to do with an unequal marriage. A naked man is found running in Central Park, and it turns out that the aging gent is the headmaster of a prestigious prep school in Vermont — and he wants to confess to murdering one of his students.
It physically pains me not to say more, but that would spoil everything. Please trust me when I say that this under-reviewed novel is a masterpiece of both whodunnit and why, combined with a torturous look at the havoc husbands and wives can wreak on each other over the course of a long marriage.
Which brings me to this week’s Backlist title, a real favorite: The Wife by Meg Wolitzer. Right now Wolitzer is a huge bestselling author, whose more recent novel The Interestings is probably now or was recently on your book club’s reading list. Seven years ago, when she published The Wife, Wolitzer was critically acclaimed but far lesser known.
Just as The Headmaster’s Wife explores a relationship between student and teacher at a boarding school, The Wife explores a relationship between student and professor at a women’s college. Joan Castleman decides to leave her husband, a renowned writer, while they are in midflight en route to Scandinavia, where he will receive a prestigious award. But in order for the reader to understand why Joan is leaving, she has to take us back to 1950s Smith College and its heady scent, “a combination of Joy, White Shoulders, and Chanel No. 5.”
There’s no murder in The Wife, but there’s a great deal of mayhem — and its ending packs a punch that will sucker the gut of any reader who’s ever witnessed, been in, or severed a marriage.