When I was coming up with a title for my novel, I discovered dozens of novels with the word Wife in the title, from The Aviator’s Wife to The Zookeeper’s Wife, and seemingly everything in between. Many fall into the romance genre, but some are literary, some historical fiction, and some fall into other genres as well.
I found it curious there were so many wife-titled books, and I began to wonder who was buying them. Were wives buying books about other wives? Or were the buyers unmarried women? Or men? Were readers hoping to read books about women just like themselves, or about women living very different lives?
I thought about Clare Abshire in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. She was a perfectly normal, likable woman, just like many of us, except she happened to fall in love with a man who time travelled. Readers were drawn to her story because she was forced to deal with a powerful curse beyond her control. We’re all thrown curve balls in our lives, and in this way we could relate to, and feel compassion for, Clare.
But what about Joan Castelman in Meg Wolitzer’s book The Wife? Was compassion what she exacted from readers? Or disagreement? Or envy? Joan announced in the opening pages that she was leaving her husband, and while many readers surely could relate to Joan’s plight of setting aside her desires to support her husband’s career, many would not have made the same choice she did. Joan set herself up for judgment by her readers, and I think that’s another reason we select books about other wives. We want to see what choices they make and debate, whether internally or with other readers, the wisdom of those choices. It’s practically part of our DNA, or at least our social DNA, to compare ourselves against others and vice versa. In fact, Alyssa Westring explains in her blog, “Why Women Should, and Can, Get past ‘Compare and Despair’ on Social Media,” that women are societally conditioned to make these comparisons because our roles in society are constantly evolving. And certainly the role of the wife is changing as much as any other role a woman might assume these days.
But then there are the other sorts of wives, the ones who are smart but also wicked. Those are the ones we like to read about to satisfy our shadow cravings, to delight in the devilish ways of our fictional sister wives. I recall a very lively book club discussion a few years ago about A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick, in which Catherine Land is both dark and cunning, and while she may not be the sort of woman we’d invite to tea, she nonetheless makes a compelling character in an abnormal marriage.
I still don’t know exactly who’s buying all the wife books, but as roughly 60% of all book purchases are made by adult women, I’ve got a pretty good idea that many of the buyers are indeed wives or ex-wives. I did not wind up calling my novel The ____ Wife. If I had, I would have called it The Dead Wife , which sounded far too morbid for literary/women’s fiction. Besides, the book is not so much about the wife as about the plan she left behind. But as it’s narrated by Beth from the afterlife, and because the entire story would not have existed without the legacy of the wife, I think it still falls into the category of wife books. In fact, I’ve decided that, because books about wives have become so popular over the last several years, we should officially create a new genre for these books, like Chick Lit.
By the way, when I showed some of my promotional materials to one of my grown sons, he suggested changing the title from The Damnable Legacy of A Minister’s Wife to The Damnable Legacy of A Hobbit’s Wife. There are no hobbits in my novel, and it doesn’t even fit the fantasy genre. So I didn’t take him up on his suggestion. But just for kicks, I did take a look at Amazon to see if there were any books about hobbit wives. There aren’t. Not yet. But I’m sure there will be, soon.