The Wife – Joan Castleman – is acerbic, wry, smart, and so so funny. This is a furious, hilarious book, quietly emanating a rage that has been built up over decades as the wife of the famous Joe Castleman – rich, award-winning, feted author, man who owns the world. This is so well observed, so tonally balanced, I tore through this book and loved every moment.
Joan and Joe are on a plane to Finland. The are old now, and Joe is at that time of his career where he is given very large awards – not the Pulitzer, oh no, he’s not that great Joan tells us – but the Helsinki award, that Scandinavian country’s imitation award which is still very good. Joan realises that she is finally tired of being the wife to this man, and their life up until this point is recalled in achingly honest detail and anecdote.
From a relationship starting in scandal – she the the brilliant student, he the scruffy young professor – to Joe’s meteoric rise as a great young writer, to establishment, to icon, Joan supported Joe throughout his brilliant career. His second wife, three children, countless awards, even more books, and one big secret, Joan plays the incisive and playfully wicked narrator to their lives. On that trans-Atlantic flight, watching the air hostesses carrying baskets of cookies “like a sexualised fleet of Red Riding Hoods”, seeing her husband’s ancient mechanism of arousal start to whir inside him, she decides enough.
The nuances of inner life and long-term couple-hood are captured so succinctly in Worlitzer’s writing. She is sharp and smart and balances her high-impact statements with tenderness and humour. Joan has got to know Joe very well, over the years:
…then a nervy, celebrated novelist who stayed awake all night and wanted to suck up the entire world and hold it in his lungs for a moment before letting it out. And now he was old, with a humbling bio-prosthetic heterograft porcine valve (however you slice it, it’s just pig meat) stuck like a clove into his heart, and pig memories somehow looped into his brain: happy images of rooting around among old nectarines and tennis shoes.
Resentment and disgust blend with sentimentally and memory. But Joan is self-aware, intelligent, good humoured; I mean she stayed with Joe for 45 years, there has to be some patience in there. But we meet her at the end of her tether, 35 thousand feet in the air.
Paying only lip service to it, Joe does not realise that the smoothness of his life, the way things happen to him, how cushioned he is, is because of Joan. Worlitzer really engages in a clear-eyed manner with the back-and-forth of intimate sexual politics. And in this particular relationship, Joan’s brilliant studentship as a writer was, somewhat consensually, sublimated to support Joe’s; her frustrated creativity becomes increasingly apparent as this turns almost into a chronicle of nightmares. But it’s not as simple as plain jealousy or even abuse, it never is. This is not Gone Girl horror, but it is horrifying at times: the familiar, every day, quiet subjugations that build up during a lifetime. Joan turns around and just realises that it was too much, it was too much a long time ago.
Wolitzer’s writing is blithe, Joan is hilarious and touching. What seems to be an every day story – a man, a woman, their marriage, their shared past – becomes a searing indictment of the reality of “wifedom”. Everybody needs a wife, but only the husbands get them. This is a hilarious, sharp book, perfectly balancing the every day, the rage, the humour with clear-eyed observation.