Saturday, May 26, 2012
Review: My Only Wife
4.5 Stars - Highly Recommended to everyone. Period.
Publisher: Dzanc Books
Jac Jemc paints a devastating picture of what happens to the one who gets left behind in her debut novel My Only Wife .
First, a confession: By sheer coincidence, I read Jac's novel on the heels of Amelia Gray's Threats, and while I promise this review will not be spent dissecting how similar the two novels are to one another, there seems no better way to start than by making some basic comparisons. For starters, they both wrote their novels from a male perspective. Both of their leading males are suffering the loss of their wives. Both perspectives are extremely constricted and unreliable, not to mention how eerily similar their writing styles are to one another - tight, teasing prose and extremely short chapters. Though Jac and Amelia have been published before, these are their debut novels and they were released within months of each other. I knew none of this when I picked them up. I'm tempted to use the phrase "bookendipity" for these "strange reading accidents".
All similarities aside, My Only Wife is the magnifying glass under which an abandoned husband grieves and mourns the disappearance of his wife. Ten years have passed, and it appears our nameless narrator is still reliving the memories of their failed marriage in an effort to discover exactly where things had begun to disintegrate between them.
It is obvious from the very beginning that this was not your normal, every-day sort of relationship, though the further down memory lane we go, the more fucked up and unusual it becomes. The wife, cold and withdrawn around her husband, apparently has this uncanny ability to get complete strangers to open up to her and spill their life stories, which she then repeats into a tape recorder behind the closed door of her closet. Preferring to carry the weight of strangers' secrets, she seemed to have little interest in those of her own husband, unless she was looking to start a fight. An overly particular and inflexible woman, the wife sometimes barked at our unnamed narrator over anything and everything, no matter how large or small. The engagement ring he bought from a mall jewelry store; watching her while she swam at the beach; her refusal to show him the inside her closet of other people's secrets or the painting she was working on in her art class; how she walked out of the movie theater if she got bored.
And to hear our narrator tell it, he was the ever patient, ever loving other half. A man willing to accept his wife's eccentric ways, tip toeing around and keeping the peace. He worshipped her every breath. He soaked in every minute they spent together. He accepted her as she was. And he has collected these memories. And now he torments himself with them, because they are all he has left.
Jac doesn't make you wait until the end of the novel to see the writing on the wall; it's been there in day-glo colors from the very start. But she does let our narrator help us connect the dots in his own slow and sensitive way. As he comes to terms with the fact that she is gone, we come to terms with the fact that we might not be getting the entire story.
Reviewing these type of novels are always tricky for me. The simplicity of stories like these tend to make me feel as though I am missing something... That there must be something deeper, some additional meaning or message that the author has buried beneath her words that I just haven't uncovered yet. And then, when I see reviews like this one from html giant and this one from nouspique, I realize I am not the only one who feels it. And it makes me feel better. But then I laugh at how crazy we will drive ourselves in the search for these hidden messages.
If you read their review, Html Giant found a double "and" in the second to last paragraph of the book. They called it the perfect stutter and hoped beyond hope that it was intentional, rather than a serendipitous typo. They assigned the double "and" meaning. After reading their review, I admit that I flipped back through my copy of the book, fearing that I missed this obviously important hiccup, only to discover that, in the finished copy, the double "and" had been removed, and it was ... despite their discovery ... an accidental typo.
So you see what I mean? We will go to incredible extremes searching for what isn't even there, when sometimes, the story we are reading is the whole story and nothing more. No hidden meaning, no deep and existential messages buried beneath the words. No smoke and mirrors. Just the words we are reading and the pages on which they are placed.
And Jac can correct me if I'm wrong, but I'd like to think that My Only Wife is simply as straight-forward as it appears. No tricks or sneaky agendas here. I think it's really just the story of a hurt and dejected husband pining for a woman who probably never really loved him the way he loved her, living in the past because for him, it's preferable to living in the present without her.