The Good Wife
By Stewart O'Nan. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 312 pages. $24.
Wholly engrossing and flawlessly crafted, Stewart O'Nan's The Good Wife is an impressive model of a matter-of-fact strand of realism for which delving into inner lives is of less interest than exhaustively depicting outward circumstances. It is a style that, done poorly or even done pretty well, can go down about as smoothly as a bowl of dry Grape-Nuts. Happily for the reader, O'Nan (A Prayer for the Dying, Night Country) does it masterfully, and with a purpose.
Twenty-seven and pregnant with her first child, Patty Dickerson lies awake in bed as the novel opens. It is the 1970s in New York State and she is waiting for her husband Tommy to return from a night out with the boys. Instead of the warm body she is anticipating, what she gets is a flustered phone call: Tommy is in jail. Her first reaction is to fear that "It's another DUI," but it's not. It's a break-in -- and somebody died.
The sheltered Patty's consciousness is slow to expand to accommodate the newly possible: "The idea that he might have done it ... takes her over slowly, like a drug, paralyzing her." Through Tommy's arrest, arraignment, and trial, Patty maintains a touching, maddening faith in the tendency of all things to work out in the end. She's ignorant about every facet of the justice system, and about the lowlights of human nature. The shock of every new blow she absorbs is heightened by her inability to imagine it coming: the plea bargain struck by his codefendant in exchange for testimony against Tommy, the jury's eventual guilty verdict, and the maximum sentence that Tommy receives.
Until that sentence comes down, The Good Wife has the suspense of any courtroom drama. After that, it becomes a study in waiting and modest hardship. The seventies, eighties, and nineties slip into the past, nothing very dramatic happening. Patty learns to negotiate visiting days at the prison, gets a job on Tommy's old road crew, moves in with her mother, and raises their son Casey. Mundane and dreary as it all is, I was effortlessly swept along -- testament to both the narrative momentum built during the trial and O'Nan's considerable skill with the plain everyday.
There is also the matter of traps: the various temptations that Patty has to fend off in order to remain the good wife of the title. Her mother, who presciently never trusted Tommy, thinks Patty should leave him. There's also another man; Patty lets herself flirt and fantasize, but "she likes to think she'd never sacrifice what she has for something as undependable as romance. There are so many other things she really needs." This raises the question: What does she have? At moments like this, when Patty's stoicism verges on denial, you have to wonder whether to take the novel's title as a sincere assessment, an ironic one, or a genuine question.
Different readers will have different ideas about the goodness of Patty's sacrifice, with shades of gray better represented than black or white. The choice pits traditional against modern values, faithfulness against freedom. Limning a narrowly constricted but purposeful life, O'Nan's unsentimental realism is what allows him to do justice to the difficulty of the choice.
Laura Demanski is a writer living in Chicago. She blogs about books and the arts at www.artsjournal.com / aboutlastnight.