A Lesson in Bookstore Feminism
Maybe it’s just me, but in my recent trips to bookstores, I’ve noticed an inordinate amount of “wife” titles in the fiction section. The Aviator’s Wife, The Paris Wife, The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Senator’s Wife, Ahab’s Wife, The Shoemaker’s Wife… and a Goodreads search of “wife” will yield many more.
My initial reaction was to slap my forehead in frustration at the sheer number of fictitious tales of women defined in opposition to their husbands, rather than the exploration of their personal identities. My frustration mounted with the realization that nearly all the authors were women. I’ve read enough feminist blogs and articles on the Huffington Post’s Women’s section to know that women who are also wives and/or mothers can feel they lack personal identity, especially when being called “so-and-so’s mom” or “so-and-so’s wife.” I felt there could be no other explanation for the wife fiction phenomena than female authors caving in to social pressures to subvert women’s wills or imply women lack intrinsic value in absence of a husband.
Like any good frustrated feminist bookworm, I did some research. I started reading “wife” books. But I was pleasantly surprised at what I found.
The female protagonists in the books weren’t at all what I expected. They weren’t lacking personal identity. Rather, their fierce individualism shone in spite of society relegating them to the strict, gendered role of wife. It’s well documented that, all too often, women have been written out of history, and these fictitious accounts allow readers to empathize with the woman, thereby giving her a voice.
For example, The Paris Wife follows Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, during the time they lived in Paris in the 1920s before Ernest had really made a voice for himself. In the end, Ernest leaves Hadley for another woman (this is said on the book jacket, so it isn’t a spoiler). Being a famous writer, I doubt he was harshly chastised for this (celebrities still get off with a mere slap on the hand), yet the book illustrates what that must have felt like for Hadley.
Likewise, I read that Ahab’s Wife was conjured from a passing mention of Ahab’s wife in Moby Dick. I realize that Hadley Richardson was indeed a real person and Ahab’s wife Una was fictitious, but Ahab’s Wife still provides an important rendering of womanhood in nineteenth century America.
It seems that, counterintuitively and contrary to my initial reaction, these fictitious accounts from the wives’ point of view are showing the value of the female experience and fighting against the sexist biases of historic accounts. The eras may be past, but my hope is that these novels will make readers think of them more broadly. You know what they say, better late than never.