It’s time for Literary Wives, a blogging club that looks at the depiction of wives in fiction!
Please make sure to check out the posts by the other wives and join in the discussion if you’ve read The Headmaster’s Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene.
Ariel @ One Little Library
Kate @ Kate Rae Davis
Kay @ Whatmeread
Lynn @ Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi @ Consumed By Ink
TJ @ My Book Strings
Arthur Winthrop, like his father before him, is the headmaster of a prep school in Vermont. Far from feeling like his father decided his fate, Arthur has always had his eye on taking over from his father one day. He has worked towards becoming headmaster and has found his life on the grounds of the school to have been a worthy and fulfilling one. But when he is found naked and wandering around Central Park in New York City, we find that the school has also become the site of his unraveling.
Arthur begins to tell his story to the police and we find that something tragic has happened to Arthur, something that has undone his orderly life. The story is told in stages, first from Arthur’s perspective, then his wife’s and finally an old school mate. The first story is kind of bananas and horrible and then the wife’s story fills in some of the blanks before finally we get the entire picture. I kept hoping for some brilliant pay off but in the end all I got was relief that I had finished the damn book.
OK so if you haven’t read this book, just know that this part is going to be full of SPOILERS. I want to speak freely about this book because I was SO frustrated with it almost from the first page.
The first section of the book is Arthur recounting an affair he has with a new student at the school, a girl called Betsy. At this point, Arthur is firmly in middle age and this CHILD is under his care. There are lots of descriptions of young bodies and the things he would like to do to hers – they do end up having a physical relationship. And maybe it’s me but I could actually live the rest of my life without reading one more book about a middle aged man having a crisis and acting out some kind of fantasy on a young woman.
At the end of this section, Arthur KILLS Betsy. After ruining the scholastic life of a boy she was dating, kicking him out of the school after he plants alcohol under his bed, Betsy is angry with Arthur. And he realizes that he doesn’t want to let her go. So he kills her. It was at this point that I actually yelled “WHAT THE F*CK?”
I don’t know why I kept reading. But I did. In the second section we find out that actually Arthur is losing his marbles and his wife is the Betsy he thinks he’s having an affair with. Things did kind of play out the same way all those years ago – Arthur did plant alcohol in his rival’s room and he was kicked out of school. But he and Betsy were at least the same age and ended up getting married and building a life together on campus. They had a son together and as their son grows it becomes clear to both that he’s not content with his life being mapped out for him in the way that Arthur’s was.
When their son enlists in the army and ends up being killed in action, Arthur and Betsy must come to terms with the loss. Arthur begins to drink heavily, Betsy to spend long periods of time in their son’s room, thinking about what has been lost.
But honestly, even though the second and third acts attempt to illuminate a tragedy and excuse the behaviour from the first section, for me, the damage was done. I’m so over men using women as objects to work through their feelings. Go to therapy for God’s sake.
In the afterword, Greene talks about this as the most honest book he’s ever written, that it was penned sitting by the bed of his daughter in the NICU. She sadly did not survive and the book is dedicated to her memory. I was just left kind of confused. How is a book that fantasizes about an affair with an underage girl (and I know that part wasn’t real, it still sucked) the most honest thing you’ve ever written??
What does the book say about being a wife?
It is not my favourite thing to think about what a book says about being a wife when most of said book is about the experiences of the men in her life. In the end, it felt like Betsy was just an object of desire, for her husband Arthur but also for her old boyfriend, Russell, the boy Arthur had kicked out of school who ends up becoming a lawyer and helps Arthur out when he’s found in Central Park.
For Arthur, marriage is about suffering:
…if you learn anything in a marriage it is when to give up. I used to think all marriages ran the same trajectory. They start with wanting to climb inside the other person and wear your skin as your own. They end with thinking that if the person across from you says another word, you will put a fork in her neck…the truth usually lies in between, and the most one can hope for is accommodation, that you learn to move around each other, and that when shit hits the fan, there is someone to suffer with.
For Betsy, the hope is that you find someone like yourself. At some point in their courtship she realizes that Arthur is broken, just as she is. “And she thinks perhaps this is what love is: letting someone else see that part of you shatters like glass. All of us are broken in our own way.”
The whole time, I was very aware that this is a book written by a man. He’s trying to peek inside the experience of women but he’s only capable of coming at that via his experience as a man. Betsy’s life has odd sexualizations – how breastfeeding her son feels like such a sexual experience, how her relationship with her son has the kind of lust that usually comes from romantic relationships. A lot of focus on breasts.
This books seems to think that women, wives, are there to fill in the blanks in a husband’s life. Those things that are misremembered, that are lost to time, it’s the role of the wife to pick up those pieces. The entire time, Betsy feels like a possession, not her own woman.
Have you read The Headmaster’s Wife? If you have, would love to hear your thoughts. And be sure to tour the other blogs participating. They probably won’t be so harsh…
In June, we’ll be discussing Stay With Me by Ayobami Adobayi.