In “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” Geoffrey Chaucer writes about a queen who offers a lascivious knight the following option in court: if he can discover what women most desire within a year, his life will be spared. If he cannot, he will die. As he roams from placed to place and as different women offer contradictory answers, he realizes he may never find the correct response, until he finds an old woman who whispers the truth in his ear — women want sovereignty over men. In Chaucer’s mind, it’s that simple. However, the books we’ve rounded up deal with the complex topic of spousal authority and interrupted lives through a different lens, be it via the experience of a young doctor dealing with an abrupt death in the family, a bride living in the shadow of a brash writer in Jazz Age Paris, or a woman desperately searching for a man to take care of her. These are the wives of history, and we are finally able to see their side of the story.
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
Obreht was born in Belgrade, though she emigrated to the US in 1997. She was named one of the New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40” writers last year, and was also included in the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” list last October. She’s also surprisingly humble, despite being showered with accolades (and having pieces published in Harper’s and The Atlantic), all at the ripe old age of 25. And yet, we can’t hate her, because she deserves all of it.
The Tiger’s Wife comes out today, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Natalia Stefanovi is a young Serbian doctor who is sent to a Croatian orphanage to set up a clinic. Along the way, she hears that her beloved grandfather has died under mysterious circumstances, and decides to continue her travels with the hopes she might find his missing possessions in a crummy little town nearby. There is also another story here, which is that of an escaped tiger roaming through the forest during WWII. Stefanovi’s grandfather regales her with a tale of this wayward beast finding its way to his village, where its whispered presence alarms the denizens of this small community. Obreht is a skillful writer, and she takes great care in her descriptions, which are lovingly detailed.
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
This book arrived on the shelves in late February to mixed reviews. It’s written in the voice of Hadley, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife. We begin in Chicago in the 1920s and then sail to Paris, where Hadley is introduced to a heady group of ex-pats which include Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and the Fitzgeralds. In A Moveable Feast, his memoir of his time with Hadley in Paris, Hemingway writes, “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.” Though plodding at times, this novel can be carried on its literary tourism alone.
Vacant Paradise by Victoria Patterson
Esther Wilson is an attractive, drifting 33-year-old college dropout in southern California who works at a posh clothing boutique and lives with her wealthy grandmother, who acts as her patron. In the novel, Esther realizes that “she needed to look out for herself, before it was too late, since no one else would. Yet she couldn’t follow through, . . . as if a leaden weight inside her kept her at the couch — when she should be impressing potential husbands with her sad beauty.” This contemporary take on Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth ends with a curious twist.