Sometimes I start a novel and think, “I’m too young for this.” Not because I’m such a hot young thing I can’t stand reading about “older” people (not at all), but because I can imagine relating better to the work when I’m a parent or wife myself.
But good books? It doesn’t matter if, on the surface, you have little in common with the main character — whether you’re 20 or 80, they drop you into their harried life and make you really feel something. And that’s what Melanie Gideon does here.
“Maybe it was those extra five pounds I’d gained. Maybe it was because I was about to turn the same age my mother was when I lost her. Maybe it was because after almost twenty years of marriage my husband and I seemed to be running out of things to say to each other.
But when the anonymous online study called ‘Marriage in the 21st Century’ showed up in my inbox, I had no idea how profoundly it would change my life. It wasn’t long before I was assigned both a pseudonym (Wife 22) and a caseworker (Researcher 101).
And, just like that, I found myself answering questions.
7. Sometimes I tell him he’s snoring when he’s not snoring so he’ll sleep in the guest room and I can have the bed all to myself.
61. Chet Baker on the tape player. He was cutting peppers for the salad. I looked at those hands and thought, I am going to have this man’s children.
67. To not want what you don’t have. What you can’t have. What you shouldn’t have.
32. That if we weren’t careful, it was possible to forget one another.
Before the study, my life was an endless blur of school lunches and doctor’s appointments, family dinners, budgets, and trying to discern the fastest-moving line at the grocery store. I was Alice Buckle: spouse of William and mother to Zoe and Peter, drama teacher and Facebook chatter, downloader of memories and Googler of solutions.
But these days, I’m also Wife 22. And somehow, my anonymous correspondence with Researcher 101 has taken an unexpectedly personal turn. Soon, I’ll have to make a decision—one that will affect my family, my marriage, my whole life. But at the moment, I’m too busy answering questions.
As it turns out, confession can be a very powerful aphrodisiac.”
(Description from Goodreads)
Figuring I couldn’t go wrong with a description like that, I plunged headfirst into Melanie Gideon’s Wife 22 — and what a wild, emotional, moving and entertaining journey it was.
Alice Buckle is a woman to whom many of us will relate, regardless of age — or what our dreams might be. A former playwright who has now thrown herself into the domestic life, her 20-year marriage to William has lost its sparkle — and her days are now more consumed by her teens’ daily dramas than writing her own. As William’s job becomes more stressful and their home life shows signs of wear, Alice can’t help but be sucked into the “Marriage in the 21st Century” study that drops right into her metaphorical lap.
With her mother gone, Alice doesn’t feel acknowledged anymore — and no one really asks her anything. Certainly nothing important. Researcher 101’s interest in her life and progression from optimistic 20-something to bored, lonely 40-something makes her feel powerful, uplifted, validated. More than anything, Wife 22 highlights our need to be heard.
The plot takes several twists I didn’t see coming, giving the online correspondence a sort of “You’ve Got Mail” feel (God, I love that movie). I found myself guessing and second-guessing what was going to happen, and Wife 22 is anything but a simple, one-note story. For something that often had me giggling aloud, the novel contains many serious issues — grief; infidelity; children growing up — but never collapsed under the weight of these topics.
William, Alice’s husband, is human. He has faults. Though at times I was frustrated by him, it was easy to see why Alice fell in love with his charm, keen intelligence and charisma. He’s a good man — just a very stressed one. I loved seeing the early days of their relationship through the filter of two decades on — when a mortgage, children and debt have muddied what was once so easy. As Alice completes the survey and exchanges emails with Researcher 101, we see only her responses — not the questions. I loved imagining what was being asked of her. Some prompts were thought-provoking, others simpler . . . but even the “simple” ones could be deceptive.
Lovers of women’s fiction, explorations of marriage and family dynamics will find much to enjoy in Wife 22. Gideon’s original prose — witty in one breath; deep in the next — captured me from the first page, and Alice Buckle is a refreshing heroine I would love to read about again.
(Oh, and Alice and William’s son Peter is such an awesome character. If I have a son someday, I hope he’s just like him.)
4 out of 5!