I watched the excellent film adaptation of ‘The Wife’ by Meg Wolitzer recently (currently available to stream on Netflix in the UK) and still had Glenn Close’s performance in mind when I read the book which was first published in 2003, so this week’s blog post is more of a joint review of both. Joan has been married to celebrated novelist Joe Castleman for forty years after meeting in the late 1950s. She was his student in a creative writing class at Smith College and they began an affair which ended his first marriage. In the present day, they are travelling to Scandinavia where Joe is due to receive a literary award – the Nobel Prize for Literature in the film, the fictional Helsinki Prize in the book, which is said to be slightly less important than the Nobel Prize for Literature but prestigious nonetheless. However, during the flight, Joan decides that enough is enough and plans to end their marriage after years of putting up with Joe’s philandering.
In the book, Joan’s rage is shown in the caustic wit of her candid first-person narrative. In the film, rather than conveying her anger directly by allowing her character to break the fourth wall or explain her feelings via a voiceover, all of the emotion is depicted in the minute changes of Glenn Close’s facial expressions. The impact in both forms is equally devastating.
The satire of the literary world in the late 20th century is excellent. Wolitzer sends up the much lauded reputation of Great American Novels and their almost exclusively male authors, in the context of the sidelining of female novelists and “women’s fiction” in general. This has been discussed more in recent years but not so much when the book was first published. The full extent of Joan’s role is made explicit a little sooner in the film than it is in the book. I don’t think it was intended to be a “big twist” as such, just something that is there if you choose to see it.
Much of the book focuses on the early days of Joan and Joe’s relationship whereas the flashbacks are less prominent in the film. This allows Close’s performance to remain at the heart of the film, but I liked that Wolitzer focused on Joan’s background more in the book. The period in which Joan and Joe met was a unique one in terms of the huge amount of social change happening in the United States at the time and the challenges and opportunities this presents in their personal and professional lives are thoughtfully explored.
‘The Wife’ is a short novel at just over 200 pages. Its scathing tone is perfectly pitched in both the original book and the film adaptation and I highly recommend both.