There are Biblical verses, poems, and a plethora of folksy sayings about the value of a good wife or what it takes to be a good wife. There is also no shortage of wives as the mainstay in fiction throughout the ages. I recently read two new novels with wives as the focus: one that looked at the criteria needed to be a good wife in modern day Houstonian society and the other about the difficult balance between being a ‘good’ wife and personal ambition. Don’t worry, these are definitely fiction!A Wife of Noble Character Published by Henry Holt and Co.
Publication date: August 2nd 2016
First of all, have you read Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth? If so, skip to paragraph two because all that’s going to happen here is a quick, modernized recap of that gem of a novel as found in Yvonne Puig’s A Wife of Noble Character. Vivienne is a beautiful thirty-year-old woman from an old oil family in Houston. Her parents died when she was young leaving her without a trust fund so she lives with an unpleasant aunt and works as a clerk in an upscale boutique. The problem is perception and she’s saddled with it. Wealthy friends spending money without care and she needs to keep up—all towards the goal of marrying a rich man and being taken care of for the rest of her life. Which she’s working on it, until she makes a fatal misstep with her grocery-store heir boyfriend and he unceremoniously dumps her, leaving her that much closer to a life of destitution and, even worse in her mind, one of social isolation.
Having read and loved The House of Mirth I couldn’t help but feel A Wife was one of those retellings that hones too closely to the original and so, falls short. Puig’s portrayal of modern day Houston as a bastion of virginity-until-marriage just doesn’t ring true. Maybe if Vivienne were in her twenties, but in this day and age a thirty-one-year-old woman who hasn’t had sex? Not that I’m criticizing or judging, but the fact that everyone around Vivienne is so concerned that she destroyed her chances with the wealthy but surly and cloddish Bucky by having sex with him feels sexist and almost offensive. Not to mention the fact that he is allowed to sleep around with abandon.
A Wife manages to pull itself up half a star by ultimately moving into the 21st century. What I found to be sexist early on does not change but Puig takes the lovely but unmotivated Vivienne and after grinding her down with misfortune, builds her back up again. Not a spoiler, I promise! I would say, for anyone who enjoyed this novel but has not read the original The House of Mirth you really need to do that. Nothing can compare to Wharton’s prose and to the pathos of Lily Bart, a young woman strangled by society’s demands with no family or wealth to help her. Plus, being set in the late 1800s means the plot makes a lot more sense.
Tanya is currently an up-and-coming Russian art specialist at a NYC auction house. When a rare artifact, the Order of St. Catherine, is brought to auction at her firm, her status skyrockets as she maneuvers through the world of oligarchs desperate to own it. In the mid-1700s Sophie Zerbst, an impoverished Prussian princess, married off to a Russian prince, has to maneuver even more skillfully to become Catherine the Great. The two move through parallel storylines in Irina Reyn’s The Imperial Wife. While Catherine had to deal with an odious oaf of a husband in Peter II, Tanya’s marriage is more loving, but seems to have the same imbalances—strong wife not so strong husband. Reyn plays the two women against each other as both try to reconcile their ambitions with their roles as loving spouses.
Sadly, The Imperial Wife gets clotted into a confusing mess of history and a contemporary marriage. Where the attention is supposed to land disappears in the last quarter of the book as the plots of Tanya and Catherine overlap and then speed over the edge of believability. Tanya’s actions to save her marriage come off as falsely dramatic. Yes, she is a Russian Jew and we’ve been primed from the earliest pages as to her volatility, but she is also known for her pragmatism and this disappears as quickly as her credibility. What’s left is a sugar-coated puff of wishful thinking on how to save a marriage. This is unfortunate as, prior to the final scenes, there are interesting scenes on the navigation required for a successful modern marriage. Ultimately, it is only Catherine who lives on, unscathed in her ability to do what’s necessary to succeed. The novel does not achieve that goal.