Feb 3, 2008

Four Wives

When I started to write for nycmomsblog I was offered an advanced copy of a novel--Four Wives by Wendy Walker. It was my first official 'perk' as a mom-blogger (unless you count the awkward event hosted by an office supply chain in which I was served pinot noir and bruschetta and shown their new line of paper shredders and GPS systems) and I happily accepted it. Full disclosure. I didn't think I'd be sitting down to write a review of it, even before I read it. I've never been moved to write a book review. And unless I've had a particularly awful experience with some kind of place or product, I'm not generally moved to write at all. I was just kind of intrigued at the thought of having a piece of fiction sent to me, just because. Besides the only things I write about are things specific to my own life as a mother. Even if I loved the book I couldn't imagine a scenario where I'd be sitting down to rave about it. I couldn't imagine that it would affect me the way it did.

At first, the author's name didn't mean anything to me, but when I got the book in the mail and looked at the author's picture, I realized I recognized her. I met Wendy over twenty years ago. We were in the same wedding party. My biggest memory of her is that she drove to the wedding in a day from somewhere down south and she showed up with a half-sunburned face and a sunburned arm and we were all to wear strapless gowns. I haven't seen her or heard anything about her since then, and that was probably, like, 1991.

The cover of Four Wives is a shot of a red bikini top floating on the multi-blued surface of a swimming pool and I was surprised to think that the Wendy Walker I remember would write a trashy novel. The Wendy I remember was determined to fight stereotypes about women and sex and I have a vague memory of a story of her protesting certain gender-based dress codes at some powerhouse Wall Street company where she used to work. Sheeplike in my desire to be accepted in my first few years in the workforce, this story of her strength and resolve made a huge impression on me.

Optimistically, I took Four Wives with me on a two-week tropical vacation. I've carted many books around with me on many vacations (Middlesex got a free trip to Berlin a few years ago, and I never even cracked the cover) and was hoping that I'd have a chance to read it. Thanks to children with serious jetlag and way-early bedtimes, I had plenty of time. And then I realized I was wrong to judge this book by its cover (forgive me for the obvious, but there's just no better analogy).

The first few chapters are named for the main characters: Janie, Love, Gayle, and Marie, and the book moves along swiftly. Janie's having an affair, Gayle's hopelessly rich, Love's consumed by her new baby Will, Marie's working to juggle work and home.

Initially the women are all recognizable. We've all read about adulterous moms, wealthy isolated women, strung-out moms, and the disenchanted moms aiming to have it all. And as in familiar beachy books, the plot clips along easily--one bite-sized chapter after another. I thought I'd polish it off quickly, but I soon slowed way down. I realized I couldn't gloss over any of the descriptions. They were loaded with insight. And I've been thinking and talking about many of Walker's observations ever since.

In her introductory chapter, Love goes to her baby's crib in the night. He's crying, clearly hungry, but she's supposed to be sleep-training him. All of her daytime promises, and the 'rules' go through her mind. "Why had raising children become about denying them the very things they craved?" she wonders before caving in and nuzzling him. It's something I've considered many times. Bringing babies into the world only to start toughening them up right away has always seemed so cruel to me and has, fortunately for my kids, informed many of my parenting decisions.

But it's the next line that really resounded. After berating herself for being 'a complete failure' for nursing him instead of leaving him to cry it out, she settles "into the state of defeat--a familiar place now."

The familiarity of the feeling of having failed is an enormous idea for me as a mother. It's almost as though I walk around hoping I don't fail at something (please let the children behave in the restaurant, please let my daughter share with Fifi, please let my kids show gratitude at Christmas time) there's that moment when something hasn't happened--when some vile behavior on a child's part seems to shine light on my horrible parenting--that just ends up feeling comfortable. Ahhh, that's how it should be, I'll think. Finally letting go of the tension of hoping things turn out well. Sometimes being in the worst case scenario feels safer (like when my 9 year old said "I already have this box set!" when he opened a gift last month, "I already have this one!" he kept repeating, since saying it once wasn't enough. What happened to all that prompting I did?--what happened to 'remember to be grateful and if you already have something, just smile and say thank you'). The thing's already gone wrong. No worries anymore. The familiar feeling of failure. It's something I know well, now that I'm a mom.

Every page yielded some gem like that. The plot served a fine purpose of moving things along, but I hardly needed it, so satisfied was I just scouring each paragraph for some wise observation, some new phrase to chew on.

I soon realized I was in good hands with Walker. I was surprised too, to find out that some of the men in her book were in good hands as well. Having been introduced to the world of the suburbs through the eyes of the less-than-satisfied wives, I was prepared to meet a cast of buffoons for husbands. Easy punching bags, given the backdrop of struggling women married to moneyed men with expensive toys. But that wasn't always the case.

When Marie and her husband Anthony have a dispute about cereal boxes he'd left out on the counter after breakfast in the morning (a dispute he only realized he was in when he came home from work and found the cereal boxes STILL sitting out in the kitchen) the fight feels as though it'll be stacked in her favor, but really isn't. Her 'I am not your maid' offense is soon matched by an earnestly presented string of things he points out he's done for her in the wake of some of her oversights, and I recognize the same kind of stale-mate I often find in my own marriage. There's no right or wrong, just a series of things that annoy me, or my husband, and that can set off another oft-repeated tension-filled back-and-forth if one or the both of us is feeling unhappy or unconnected or un-something else.

In my own marriage I've got the 'guy' role. I could walk around a shopping bag for a week, honestly not noticing it at all. Then my husband will come forward with some massive complaint about the bag that's been in the middle of the living room all week, and how he's been waiting for me to move it. My feeling in these moments is that if he's the one who's been noticing the bag, he should be the one to move it. Of course he disagrees, so annoyed at my claim that I didn't realize it was there--a claim that baffles me, since there's usually some glimmer of remembering having seen it, just not focusing on it (one of my big m.o.s as a mom is that a kid will have lost something and I'll come up with this dubious answer 'I remember seeing it in some really weird place and thinking that it was in a really weird place but I don't remember where I saw it.'--so there really is some strange seeing-but not seeing kind of thing going on. Imagine being married to that). This infuriating cycle will probably repeat itself forever, serving as a barometer for other things in our marriage--how generous we're feeling towards each other, how well-rested we are. Sad, but true. But wonderful to see so realistically portrayed in Four Wives.

I won't give away anything else about the book. But suffice it to say there's a particular reason I feel wonderful about it that I can't say here without spoiling the ending. I heartily recommend Four Wives. It's not a trashy read like the cover suggests (was there even mention of a red bikini or a swimming pool in the book?), but one full of helpful insights on marriage and on mothering, one written by the Wendy Walker I remember being so impressed by so many years ago.

1 comment:

Lori said...

I just found your blog, you are my new favorite internet destination. You say what I think, but a lot more eloquently.

Good luck to you, and I can't wait to read more!!