The Good Wife

14Mar09

I just finished Stewart O’Nan’s novel, The Good Wife, which we are discussing for March’s book club.  I haven’t read any of Stewart O’Nan’s novels, but he’s quite prolific, and very well regarded.

The Good Wife by Stewart ONan

The Good Wife by Stewart O'Nan

The Good Wife begins with a crime.  Tommy Dickerson and his friend Gary commit an arson and a murder — though we never find out Tommy’s motive, the damage is done and he has to pay the price.  Though his actions are directly related to the plot of the story, The Good Wife is not about Tommy.  It is about the struggles that his wife Patty, pregnant with their child when the story first begins, must face on her own.

The novel creeps along the length of Tommy’s 28-year prison sentence, chronicling the changes in Patty’s life as Tommy moves through the New York penal system.  On the surface, it seems like nothing really happens — Patty goes from job to job, moves in with family, tries to provide for her son, and attempts to remain a good wife to Tommy, all the while remaining sexually faithful, and faithful in her visits to him.  It’s an account of life, from day to day and year to year.  Beyond the everyday account of Patty’s life, it represents the prison she’s also in.  She is free to do as she pleases, but her heart is with Tommy, as she tries to give as much as she can to him, though they spend twenty-eight years apart.

I’m interested to see what my book club thinks.  I have a feeling that for some, the book might be a snoozer.  O’Nan writes in short sentences, in third-person, present tense, which may not seem unusual but since the book is really about the everyday things that occupy Patty’s existence in her years without Tommy, the short sentences might seem to drag on.  It’s clear though, that this style not only puts the reader in Patty’s position — waiting for time to pass until Patty can visit Tommy, it also creates the notion that Patty could be ANYONE, her circumstances are no different than someone you may know.  Tommy doesn’t have a criminal past but because of a decision he made, Patty, Tommy and their close immediate family must do their best to work within the penal system, to be patient with the state’s decisions and to maintain their love for one another, as best they can.

Speaking of which, I thought The Good Wife had a really fresh and interesting take on fidelity and commitment.  O’Nan uses a firm hand, showing that Patty never wavers in her devotion, in a situation where many people would have given up; where even Tommy suggests she starts over.  Thinking of the situation objectively, Patty may seem foolish (especially when you think of a 28-year sentence…), but O’Nan makes you believe that she would never question her fidelity and devotion to her marriage, despite all her hardships.

I really liked this book.  I would definitely read more by O’Nan, and I’m planning on recommending it to others as well.

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