Monday, December 2, 2013

Literary Wives: The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon

Literary Wives is a book discussion 'group' themed around wives and how they're articulated in novels.  You can read more about it from the blogger who came up with the idea, Ariel of One Little Library.  Everyone is welcome to join in the conversation, so please join us in our future reads:
  • February: The Inquisitor's Wife by Jeanne Kalogridis
  • April: The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman
For December, we're discussing Ariel Lawhon's The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress, which comes out in January 2014.  (From this point on, we'll only be picking books that easily available!)

Please be sure to join in the conversation with the rest of us! For more thoughts: Ariel of One Little Library, Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J., Carolyn at Rosemary and Reading Glasses, Cecilia at Only You, Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors, and Kay of whatmeread!

For our discussions, we use two questions to springboard things:

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

Lawhon's novel is inspired by the real life disappearance of a crooked judge from 1930s New York, and follows three women 'closest' to him: his wife Stella, his maid Maria, and his mistress Ritzi.

It's a zippy fast read, alternating between 1969 -- when Stella is making (perhaps) a confession to the detective from the time -- to 1930 in the months before and during Judge Joe Crater's disappearance.  Lawhon follows each woman, allowing the reader to see just how she feels about the loutish, cruel, and ambitious judge, and how each woman is tied to him -- even if she wishes to be free.

I'll do a full review of this book later.  Lawhon's writing is breezy, punctuated with some lovely little poetic lines that made me pause and reach for my pen.  I was pleased that Lawhon's women shared a solidarity with each other, a support of women, that was welcome and refreshing (without watering down any tension).  I anticipated woman-hating behavior and found, instead, adults struggling to cope with an emotionally stressful situation, feelings of betrayal, and real crimes in ways that seemed authentic.

Now, for our Literary Wives discussion!

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Short of reading an inspirational novel, I'm not sure we're ever going to come across a novel that articulates the experience of being a wife as wholly and totally awesome.  However, in this book, Lawhon's wives cover the spectrum, from having a lovely, passionate marriage to having a horrible, cold one.  (For, despite the title, there is more than wife in this story.)

One of the lines that still sticks out in my mind comes more than halfway through the book, when the judge's personal attorney starts prepping Stella about the investigation into her husband's disappearance.  When Stella shares, sadly, that she should know more about her husband's finances, the attorney says 'You take care of the home, he takes care of the money.' (p196 in my ARC).

In some ways, this is an expected response for the era (and, I'm sad to say, even now!) but it was an amusing line to me as Stella (and the other wives in this novel) did far more than simply care for the home.  They didn't get credit for it -- and perhaps that enunciates the experience of being a wife in this era -- but these wives, like many if not all spouses, were supportive (in differing amounts) of their partners and helped them to get ahead.  (Save for one notable exception, but I don't want to spoil the story.)

Until she couldn't stand it anymore, Stella stood by her philandering, criminal husband, playing the role of trophy wife.  Maria, the judge's maid, used her connection with the powerful couple to help her husband, a police detective, but she pays for that favor cruelly, especially when her husband is wrangled into investigating the missing judge. 

Of course, these wives weren't blindly loyal.  For Stella, she'd made a trade off -- her happiness for fiscal comfort -- but found her role as a trophy wife was tiresome.  She shocked me (but I was also secretly delighted) when she slammed her husband's hand in a car door, in clear anger over his mistress.  Devout Maria broke some serious commandments, and while she wasn't intentionally trying to betray her husband, her decisions were a blow to him and his perception of her, their marriage, and the life they wanted. 

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

Both Stella and Maria are very much defined by wife, each reflecting an exaggerated facet of the title.  Stella has an 'enviable' marriage -- a wealthy, powerful, and ambitious husband -- but she's got to live with the knowledge her husband is a serial philanderer.  Maria has a passionate marriage and a devoted husband -- but her inability to have a child leaves her feeling hollow and heartbroken.  While motherhood and marriage are not intrinsically tied together, in Maria's case, I think being a wife meant she would also be a mother -- and the absence of that was something Maria felt keenly.

This is a spoiler paragraph, so skip it if you'd like to read the book and be surprised!  I wasn't surprised to learn Ritzi was married -- I immediately thought of Truman Capote's Holly Golightly, a child bride with her old man husband -- but when I learned Ritzi didn't have that kind of marriage, I was intrigued.  I wish we could have learned more about the marriage -- why and how it happened, and why she left after getting married rather than before -- as I don't doubt that being a wife was part of a definition she chafed at.  I don't know if it's that married women weren't Broadway stars -- it wouldn't surprise me -- but it seems that Ritzi didn't want to belong to a man -- and yet, found herself being 'owned' by men in ways that were cruel and, for her, disgusting.  However, her being a wife was her saving -- for her husband took her back with a grace and kindness I loved (and would hope my spouse would embody should I be so selfish and horrible).  While Ritzi didn't go through this novel defined as a wife, it was that label that gave her the novel's only happy ending -- a lovely twist given that it seemed Maria was the most charmed of the group.

Ultimately, it is Stella who remains most defined as wife, hobbled by it, even.  Lawhon shares in her Author's Note that decades after his disappearance, it is only her relation to Judge Crater as his wife that defines her in her obituary.  She is always The Wife, regardless of what else she might have done in her life, the labels she might have chosen for herself.


  1. Clever idea for a reading challenge!

    Harvee atBook Dilettante

  2. When I first read the title of this blog post, it reminded of a movie I watched years ago called, The Thief, the Cook, the Wife, and Her Lover. : )

  3. I must have missed that part in the Author's Note about the obituary! Stella was the one who really let "wife" define her; Maria and Ritzi had other things to worry about. Great review!

  4. "Hobbled" -- perfect word for Stella. Nice review, and great interview questions!

  5. I love the way you summarized the story and the three women, Audra! I had kinda overlooked Stella's obituary when composing a review, but you're right, her role as "wife" really was her "life"! You've made me think about other aspects of the book. Thanks for that!