- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2003

"The Wife" in Meg Wolitzer's novel (her sixth) is Joan Castleman, wed 45 years to Joe Castleman in one of literary New York's most long lasting and outwardly successful marriages. Joe's fictions feature "unhappy, ufaithful husbands and their complicated wives." And Joan is about to reveal how complicated she also is.
Joan has devoted her years to being supportive of a husband whose need for love (and sex) always was exorbitant, to raising three children, and to being literary helpmate to the self-doubting writer. He likes to boast of Joan as his better half and of how hard she works, which she does more so than the world knows in fact, it goes to the mysterious heart of their story.
Joe's fame and reputation has grown steadily. A first novel, "The Walnut" (walnuts figure in the couple's love story), was a groundbreaking success, his second, "Overtime," won a Pulitzer prize, so long ago now that he has all but forgotten. The reader meets the Castlemans 35,000 feet up in the air, on their way to Finland where Joe is to receive the Helsinki Prize..
The Helsinki is not the Nobel, Joe as his wife can see is not in that league, but with a cash award of $525,000 and the associated prestige it is enough with which to go on. For the aging writer, now 71, it is ego fuel, and he can use the boost. For the moment, sitting in first-class, he is as his wife puts it not without irony "one of those men who owns the world."
For Joan, on the contrary, the flight to Helsinki marks the moment she decides to leave Joe, and at 64 give life one more try. She doesn't tell him, not yet, but the approaching moment of truth is on her mind. She also uses these days of Joe's "lovefest" with the Finns to review the couple's life together, so that by story's end the reader knows just why she is doing what she is doing, and why now.
One of the novel's most appealing aspects is the writer's depiction of the years of changing literary and cultural life, from young Joe discovering the pleasures of early-1950s bohemia in New York to the beginning of the 1990s and fateful journey to Finland. Joan, fittingly enough in light of how she has lived those years, gives over the opening pages of her first-person narrative to a sketch of her husbnd's early life.
A Brooklyn Jew, Joe was raised by a doting mother and aunts after his father died of a heart attack while working in his shoe store. Joe went into the Army during the Korean War, but accidentally shot himself in the foot with an M-1. He also attended Columbia and by the time Joan, nee Ames, met him teaching creative writing at Smith College, he had been molded into a tweedy academic with a wife, Carol, and baby daughter.
Joan pictures herself at that time as "a fluttering budgie," a shy, busty blond in long plaid skirts and flats. Her background was WASP Manhattan with a mother of the committee woman type. This was a time when college professors shamelessly seduced their female students, and the young women went cheerfully along. Joe adjudicated a short story Joan wrote as "wonderful." He gave her one of his own to read, andshe said that she "loved it." She didn't, and it didn't stop her from falling in love.
In the the ensuing showdown, Carol threw Joe out of their home, and he lost his job. Joan dropped out of college, and the pair landed in a room in a seedy Manhattan hotel. It wasn't a very promising start to the life that took them so far together.
Joan had won her man by the sword, but still expected him to be faithful to her. In this she was mistaken. On the plane flying to Helsinki, she notes Joe's reaction to a glamorous stewardess serving cookies: "I could see the ancient mechanism of arousal start to whir like a knife sharpener inside him, a sight I'd witnessed thousands of times over all these decades."
But Joan is not angry with Joe in any common feminist sense. The Castlemans' history has more to it than a writerly wife sacrificing her career for that of her husband. There is more too than her being furious (though she is that too) over the womanizing and humiliation of playing the betrayed wife at writers' conferences.
In their early days of tireless passion and shared ambition, they were young writers together, swapping their drafts. Joe was an attentive young lover, but Joan took her devotion further, "consumed by my grandiose dreams of greatness for Joe. He would be a writer; the hopes I had for him were like the hopes men had for themselves: to conquer, to crush and astound. I didn't particularly want to do any of that myself; it didn't even occur to me that I could… . I didn't want to play in the same field as the men; it would never be comfortable, and I couldn't compete. My world wasn't big enough, dramatic enough, and my subjects were few. I knew my limits."
Joan was wrong about that too, it was her biggest mistake, but neither did she want to be thought of as a "lady writer," another label in use during those years. This left her ambition to be channeled into her husband's career, a gift he was quite ready to accept. It was as if Joe has intuited her inclination, and he gave Joan the opening 20 pages of his first novel draft to read and evaluate. This marked the beginning of the couple's literary symbiosis.
While Joe stayed home to write, the wife went to work as assistant to a publisher, and he took "The Walnut" when written. After it was published, Joe's literary rise was very fast, "ascend[ing], a straight shot upward, quo qualms, no second thoughts, none of those late-night fears that sometimes terrorize young writers. What if everything's different now? What if we're different?"
With a successful novel out there, the pattern of the Castlemans' life together, literary and otherwise, was fast becoming set. They moved to better quarters and soon were acquiring literary friends and the social habits of the successful writer's life.
The decades with their crazes, "swinging" and more, came and went. The children grew up, Susannah adoring her father, Alice the lesbian daughter more inclined to take his measure, and David, a troubled child, downright hostile, once threatening his father with a knife.
Joe, increasingly idolized, had a famous fistfight with another writer Lev Bresner, a Holocaust survivor. Later, he survived a heart attack and resulting surgery. Other characters make their way into the novel's pages, including Tosha, Lev Bresner's tortured wife and a suicide. Several of Joe's women brush by on the periphery.
Along the way a reviewer called Nathaniel Bone attached himself to Joe, and in an excess of admiration begged to be allowed to write the authorized biography. Joe didn't want his "essence" captured so closely as Bone promised to do, and said no thanks.
Bone, planning to write an unauthorized biography, shows up in Helsinki to see, among other things, what he can get Joan to tell him, and the scene is set for the novel's final climactic showdown between husband and wife.
Ms. Wolitzer's novel is tightly organized with much fine prose, including pages about writing that contribute to the story of the Castlemans, rather than cluttering.
Her New York literary scene is at once familiar-seeming and fresh. Characterization and dialogue are crisp. The portrait of Joan, who started out in life wanting to do great things and in a way has a "complicated" wife is ever there was one is memorable.
By Meg Wolitzer
Scribner, $23, 219 pages

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