Everyone has been talking about this novel recently, as its film adaptation hits cinemas amid whispers of an Oscar nomination for its protagonist Glenn Close. I’m keen to see the film, which gave me the impetus to finally dig out the book from my TBR pile. That pile houses several other novels by Wolitzer, although this is the first I’ve read. If it’s anything to go by, I have plenty of other treats in store. Acerbic, ironic and wise by turn, this novel is a blistering criticism of male privilege, set in a very particular milieu – 1970s and 1980s American literary circles – which, like a stone dropped into a deep pool, sends out ripples which lick against our modern shores.
When Joan Ames first encounters Joe Castleman, her charismatic college professor, she is captivated by him. Young, rumpled and inspirational, Castleman has a blend of authority and vulnerability that makes him irresistible to young women; and he knows it. But Joan is the one who captures him beyond the promise of a brief tryst. She’s beautiful, smart and gifted, and the lure of talent makes her irresistible to him. He leaves his wife for her; and soon they’re struggling to make ends meet in a small flat in downtown New York, where Castleman decides that he’s going to embark on a career as a writer. But soon something shocking comes to light. Castleman can’t write. And so Joan realises that it’s down to her to help him, to justify her own faith in him, and to prove to her disapproving family that she has made the right choice.
Thirty years later, Joan and Joe Castleman are on a plane flying into Finland, so that he can be presented with the Helsinki Prize (an honour slightly less prestigious than the Nobel Prize). He is one of the Great American Novelists, his fame assured by a series of dense, semi-autobiographical novels which probe the intricacies of family life, offering strikingly profound insights into both male and female attitudes. And now he is going to be honoured for it. At his side, Joan seethes silently, decades of resentment building up inside her. Over the next few days, as Joe’s star rises to its zenith, she revisits the bitter path of their marriage and the sacrifices she has made – emotional, romantic, professional – that have brought them here today. And she makes a sudden, but irrevocable decision. She’s had enough. One way or another, she is going to escape.
For a slim novel, this packs a huge punch. It is a masterful dissection of an unhappy marriage and the clash of personalities between a narcissistic Casanova with a Peter Pan complex, and his brittle, brilliant wife, who has suppressed her own flame in order to let her husband’s burn brighter. It’s a tale of compromises which are only carried out on one side; a tale of betrayals and stiff upper lips; a story of carrying on despite insufferable provocation. Perhaps that makes it a tale of a normal marriage? I can’t tell. This was the most recent pick for my book club, and I was interested to see the route that conversation took while we were discussing it. The other girls felt that Joan was at fault for not asserting herself and taking ownership of her own genius. But I felt differently. Joan is a product of her age: an age in which she never really had a chance as a ‘lady novelist’. Her choice was between insignificance either way. And I think she becomes more interesting because of the path she chooses, and the power that gives her.
Wolitzer’s novel is so brilliant because Joan isn’t unilaterally sympathetic. She is not a victim, but a woman who has collaborated in her own silencing. She has high opinions of herself, seeing herself on a different plane to the other ‘writers’ wives’ who mope around at parties and retreats, but how true is that? She regards these other women as the men do: adjuncts to their success, dutiful wives, who know when to look away as their husbands flirt with wide-eyed college girls, and who keep the home fires burning. But isn’t this the life that Joan has chosen for herself? Isn’t it disgust at herself, as much as at Joe, that has pressed her to this moment of revelation on the way to Finland?
I would hope that this book is a history piece, but I don’t move in modern literary circles. I wonder to what extent things have actually changed? Perhaps it’s true, as my book club companions observed, that Wolitzer is unfair to men, presenting them as senseless, arrogant, priapic creatures whose friendships are all founded on a delicate hierarchy of their own significance. But this isn’t supposed to describe all men, just a particular kind of sharply-observed man. There are moments when the novel becomes practically anthropological in its dissection of bohemian American life. It isn’t a warm book, but it’s fascinating and it rings with a deep psychological truth. I enjoyed Joan’s complexity as a heroine – a woman whose life has been turned into a lie of her own volition, and who now cannot forgive herself – and relished the story’s slow but irresistible push towards its dramatic climax. I simply must see the film.
Short but powerful and angry, this feels like a feminist salvo fired into the literary world, simmering with fury at the way women have been pressured to accommodate male ambitions at their own expense. It’s a fiercely intelligent book, with the kind of humour that stings in the wound. Yes, it’s set in the past, but I can’t help feeling it still has resonances in the present day (though perhaps not quite as strongly for my own generation). I’m eager to read more of Wolitzer’s novels, as I think she deals there with similar issues of family, gender and the struggle for expression.