Literary Wives is a bi-monthly book club exploring the experience of being a wife, as told through literature. Every book is so different, and we always have a lively conversation! If you’ve read the book, please join in the comments! If you’re interested in joining us next time, our October read will be American Housewife by Helen Ellis.
Be sure to check out other reviews from my Literary Wives friends today:
- Emily from The Bookshelf of Emily J.
- Lynn from Smoke & Mirrors
- Kay from What Me Read
- Naomi from Consumed by Ink
- Our newest member! Kate from Kate Rae Davis
How to Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman; published 2013 by Picador/St. Martin’s Press
I’m warning you now: I might not be able to talk about this book without giving away the ending.
This book snuck up on me. I really didn’t like it at first. And then I started to realize what was going on… and my mind was blown. Let me explain.
We know immediately that our main character, Marta, lives a restrained life. Her husband, Hector, is extremely protective and prescriptive. He micromanages every detail of their lives, even dressing Marta himself. And she doesn’t seem to mind, at first. It was so frustrating to read; I was upset for her, and she seemed not to care. She constantly recalls quotes from the book Hector’s mother gave her at their wedding, How to Be a Good Wife:
- Your husband belongs in the outside world. The house is your domain, and your responsibility.
- Never hurry or nag him along. His time is precious, and must be treated as such.
- Always wait for him before you begin eating: he should always come first.
- Let him talk first. Remember that his topics of conversation are more important than yours.
Gives you shudders, doesn’t it?
Every day Hector gives Marta a pill… for what, we’re not sure. Recently, Marta has stopped swallowing them, and she starts to see a young girl throughout the house. The young girl is trying to show her something. Marta has immense pity for the girl; she enjoys seeing her and wants to protect her.
Hector and Marta’s son, Kylan, comes to visit with his fiancee and announce his engagement. Marta causes a huge scene, treating Katya very rudely, trying to manipulate Kylan into forgoing the wedding. Frankly, she’s controlling and jealous. Hector thinks that Marta’s “sickness” is getting worse, and tries to take care of her. He seems gentle and kind. At this point in the book, I was fed up with Marta—even if I bristled at Hector’s condescension.
And then Marta’s visions start to become more vivid, and she realizes that the girl is herself, as if she’s watching a movie of her own life. The younger version of herself is often scared and hungry… and stuck in a room. A trap door opens from the ceiling, and a man comes to spend time with her and give her food. Eventually Marta realizes that the man is Hector. She suddenly remembers how they met: how when she was 18 she missed the bus on the way home from ballet, how Hector appeared and offered to give her a ride, how he drugged her, and how he had kept her in a room for a couple years. He told her her parents had died, made her incredibly sick and then nursed her back to health himself so that she would be dependent on him.
Now that she remembers, though, no one will believe her. Kylan and Hector trick her into seeing a psychiatrist, and she’s admitted to long-term care.
I was completely shocked to learn that Hector had abducted Marta (real name: Elise). I suppose I should have known Hector wasn’t all he seemed to be, but I was completely caught up in the story—and truly frustrated with Marta’s half-hearted attempts at rebellion. The author, Emma Chapman, is a great storyteller.
What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
Obviously, the way Hector treats Marta is just creepy… and then we find out that he’s sick and perverted. His expectations for Marta are not at all normal—so I don’t want to examine his treatment of her in answering this question. What actually stood out to me was the expectations that the wives in the book had for each other.
First, we have Matilda, Hector’s mother. Matilda babies Hector very similar to how Hector babies Marta. It appears that Matilda enjoys demeaning Marta, criticizing her housekeeping and cooking. Unsurprisingly, Marta feels that she can never meet Matilda’s or Hector’s expectations: “I was taking a job she didn’t want to give up, especially since Hector’s father had passed away. Despite the fact she had pressured Hector into finding a wife, she wasn’t going to make it easy to take over from her.” Marta silently retaliates in small ways, such as purposely pouring too much salt in their stew.
You’d think that Marta might learn from Matilda’s obvious jealousy, but she doesn’t. Marta is just as jealous about Katya’s obtrusion, and the fact that she will soon replace Marta as the most important woman in Kylan’s life. Marta criticizes her wedding plans and Matilda jumps in to recommend that Katya not work when she and Kylan have children. Katya graciously and deftly handles the silent accusations and attempts to intimidate her.
It’s clear that wifely submission is an important element of marriage for both Matilda and, at first, for Marta. They live by the rules in How to Be a Good Wife. But wifely submission is nothing compared to how both feel about motherhood. Loyalty and devotion to one’s children are sacred to both women. Even when Marta does begin to oppose Hector, protecting Kylan’s happiness keeps her from doing everything she can to protect herself.
Thankfully, Marta eventually accepts that Katya will be a very different wife and mother from herself. She does pass on How to Be a Good Wife to Katya, but lets go of her own need to be involved in their lives.