Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife begins thirty-five thousand feet above the ocean, in the plane that is taking Joan and Joseph Castleman to Helsinki. A famous American novelist in his seventies, Joe is being honored by Finland with an internationally prestigious literary award, and, as always, Joan is his muted, supportive companion. However, she is the book’s narrator and, speaking now in her own voice, announces in its very first sentence that she intends to leave her lionized husband.
The Wife constitutes Joan’s memoir of life with Joe Castleman, and, while recounting what happens in Helsinki, it retraces the stages of their relationship, beginning in 1956, when he, an eccentric, exotic Jewish instructor, entered a classroom at Smith College. Like many of her fellow students, Joan is smitten, and when, abandoning his wife and baby daughter, Castleman invites her to run off with him, she obliges. Joan recalls lean times sharing a shabby flat in Greenwich Village. The publication of The Walnut, Joe’s first novel, immediately transforms their lives, as he assumes his place among the leading authors of the United States. Among the perquisites of success is a steady supply of obliging women, and Joan suffers her husband’s infidelities in silence while supporting his career and raising their three children.
An intrusive scholar named Nathaniel Bone intends to write a biography of Joseph Castleman, but both Joe and Joan are wary of exposing too much of themselves to him. The Wife constitutes Joan’s alternative biography, one that could not have been written by either Nathaniel or Joe. In her compelling story’s final pages, she offers a startling revelation that forces the reader to reconsider the nature of literary achievement, marriage, and a meaningful life.