The Good Wife Strikes Back
By Elizabeth Buchan (Viking, 304 pp., $24.95)
Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman
By Elizabeth Buchan (Penguin, 341 pp., $14)
The author reads at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Jan. 15 at 6 p.m.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that ever since Jane Austen published her first novel, female writers have been trying to articulate the typical struggles of sensitive, intelligent and ambitious women at odds with a culture determinedprimarily by marrying them offto squash their sensitivity, intelligence and ambition. In her new novel The Good Wife Strikes Back, and in the new paperback release of her 2002 novel Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman, British writer Elizabeth Buchan asks the age-old question of female novelists: How can a woman balance the soul-sucking demands of marriage and family with a sincere desire to keep her soul intact? More specifically, Buchan’s characters are seeking a way to revive their soulssmothered but, by some miracle, not extinguishedin middle age. And if their marriages survive the soul-revitalization project, so much the better.
Theoretically, anyway. It’s impossible to read about the marriages of these fortysomething protagonists and root for their survival. In Revenge, Rose Lloyd’s husband is a philandering newspaper editor who sits down every night and waits to be cooked for, listened to, agreed with and perhaps gently massaged in his throbbing temples. Rose works for the same newspaper but still manages to perform all these wifely functions, take care of her widowed mother and rear two children without any help from the man of the house. (He’s too busy being important, and bedding Rose’s attractive assistant, to pitch in.) Fanny Savage, the good wife of the new book’s title, has it even worse: Her husband is a member of Parliament who keeps an apartment (and, at least once, a paramour) in town, coming home only on weekends. In his absence, Fanny tends to their child, her elderly father, and her live-in nephew and sister-in-law (a simultaneously maddening and pitiable alcoholic), as well as all the immediate needs of the district’s voters. If ever anyone needed a helpmate, it’s these women. But, alas, only men get to have traditional wives.
It’s tempting to argue that these books are 30 years out of dateor that their protagonists, at least, ought to be 30 years older. Are there really women young enough to have grown up under the first wave of feminism who nevertheless let themselves get tricked into this miserable, limiting, let-me-warm-your-slippers-honey version of matrimony? In a word, yes. It’s Elizabeth Buchan’s particular talent to show how easy it is for any woman, no matter how educated or enlightened, to find herself living in such constraints, and all for very good reasons. Stereotypical gender roles tend to be shored up by the biology of reproduction, at least in the early years, which is when family behavior patterns are being set. Besides, it’s impossible, when genuinely in love, not to be willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the beloved. Only after the children are grown do women like Fanny and Rose finally begin to understand that those sacrifices have all too often been only on one side.
And yet, despite such realizations, Buchan’s stories are not über-feminist screeds, nor even especially polemical. The husbands aren’t wicked or even entirely self-centered; they’re as puzzled and unhappy as their wives, and just as eager to try to make some kind of sense of the mess they find themselves in. The wives, meanwhile, are not entirely blameless in their own imprisonment, in both cases having actively aided their husband’s ambitions while consciously suppressing their own. More importantly, Buchan’s understanding of the subtleties of marriage leads, by the end of both books, to her protagonists’ realization that their husbands, too, are suffering in a trap that is just as unrelenting, and at least partly of the women’s own making. “Perhaps that’s the real trouble with marriage,” Rose remarks. “The groove becomes so worn and so smooth that you forget to think about it. Properly. Painfully. Until it’s too late.” Static gender roles tend to be democratic in the miseries they dispense.
For all these reasons, both novels are seriously mistitled: The only “striking back” the good wife does here is to take a small vacation in Italy alone. And the middle-aged woman’s only “revenge” is finding, in the end, a promising and unforeseen futurethe kind of revenge that’s implied in living well. Unlike Fay Weldon’s spectacularly vindictive heroine in Life and Loves of a She Devil, who finds herself suffering similar wifely indignities, Buchan’s characters are quiet and introspective, and they come to a far more nuanced and thought-provoking understanding of marriage, and themselves, than any act of genuine revenge could provide.
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