The Good Wife
The Other Side of Midnight is the title of both the first chapter of Stewart O’Nan’s ninth novel, The Good Wife, and the 1973 book by Sidney Sheldon that Patty Dickenson is reading on the early winter night that changes her life. Her pregnant body snuggled into bed, she waits for her husband. She waits, too, for their first child, whom she is convinced is a boy. Tonight she anticipates something else. She waits in bed, wrapped in a sexy black peignoir. Life is good and hopeful. She cannot know that the seemingly smooth trajectory of her life will be interrupted forever by a phone call. The phone rings. For her and for her growing family, the dark and desolate “other side of midnight” has just begun.
The call is from her husband, Tommy. He tells Patty that he and his good friend and drinking buddy, Gary, have gotten into “a little spot.” He assures her that, although the pair have been arrested and the phone call is coming from jail, things are not so bad. There is a “bunch of stuff,” but without detailing its content he assures her that everything will be fine. The bubble of his assurance is burst by a second phone call. This time the caller is Donna, Gary’s wife. The “bunch of stuff” turns out to be a very serious situation. The men have been arrested after attempting to rob the home of an old woman, Mrs. Wagner, not unknown to Patty’s family, who is now dead. The charges are robbery and murder.
Served poorly by his lawyer and unable to rise above the damning evidence and the betrayal by his friend Gary, Tommy is sentenced to the maximum term for second-degree murder. Gary gets off with the equivalent of a slap on the wrist. Tommy’s legal appeals fail. The damning consequence of one night of poor judgment is lived out in the dismal routine of twenty-eight years in prison. Patty and the reader face the experience with him: the quotidian ugliness, hopelessness, and degradation of a spirit-suppressing life.
Through the lengthy ordeal, Patty not only keeps her marital commitment but tries to smooth the course of the long years in prison for her husband. She bears their son, Casey, raises him to respect his father, and endures whatever it takes to cobble a precarious life for herself and her child. Desperate for money, she does whatever work will pay the bills, steeled to the exigencies of life as a single mother with few resources or skills. She juggles her work life, family obligations, and her episodic contacts with her husband. She endures the loss of her own residence as she moves in with her mother, the taunting of reporters as she leaves the courtroom, and the judgment of those around her. Whenever she can, she visits Tommy and submits to everything the system requires, from the indignity of personal searches as she enters the prison to the guards’ arbitrary exercises of authority.
She tries to make Tommy’s life in prison as carefree as possible, baking him lasagna and taking advantage of periodic conjugal visits under the worst of conditions. Through these recurrent waves of difficulty Patty remains afloat, a constant wife and resilient heroine. She emerges as a much stronger person than the naïve young wife anticipating a sexual evening with the husband she adores. The world may self-destruct around her, but she remains focused on what she believes must be done.
The reader is drawn into Patty Dickenson’s bleak experience in a way that lingers in memory and mood even after the book is done. O’Nan has a writing style that burrows its way into the consciousness of the reader and refuses to dislodge. He frames his story with care. The opening scene of the book, set in the chill of a winter night, speaks of Patty confined within “black mirror” windows that enclose her within the “walls of a box,” her bedroom. At the end of the book, set likewise in the marital bedroom, the windows no longer box her in. Rather, they are open to the strong beam of the full moon and...
(The entire section is 1626 words.)