Two new books, both to be published this fall, deal with the uncomfortable reality of women bound in loving chains, women whose lives are painfully reminiscent of the Stepford Wives.
How To Be a Good Wife, a debut novel by Emma Chapman, presents Marta, a middle-aged woman distressed over her son’s decision to leave their secluded valley to move to the city. Recently, Marta has stopped taking her pills, which have insulated her all her adult life from painful memories of her parents’ death. Now, strange things are happening—her favorite doll is turned the wrong way, she finds cigarettes in her purse, and she sees “a hand, reaching out: the fingers spread open to take [a cigarette]. It is small, with bitten-down nails, a silver ring gleaming on the index finger… when [she] looks again the hand is gone.”(2)
No less shocking is Diane Chamberlain’s Necessary Lies, set in 1960. Jane Forrester is a new bride married to a status-driven doctor who thinks joining the Junior League and starting a family should be her goals. Jane, however, has a strong desire to help people and, so, finds a job as a social worker in rural Grace County outside Raleigh, NC and puts off pregnancy with secret birth control pills. Whereas the first novel shocks with its hints of paranoia, the second novel shocks with the routine expectation that men and authority figures know what’s best for women and the poor.
Both of these novels were hard to put down. How To Be a Good Wife takes its title from an instruction manual Marta’s mother-in-law gives her:
Let your husband take care of the correspondence and finances of the household. Make it your job to be pretty and gay. (15)
Marta’s gradual breakdown is actually more of a break out. Without her pills, she remembers more and more of her past, although in disjointed pieces that she can’t clearly decipher or trust. The hand she saw belongs to a young girl, blond hair, gray eyes, who appears sometimes smiling and healthy, but more often, skinny and careworn. These visions frighten Marta, but she realizes she needs to see them—she wants to know what she’s like without the pills that have wrapped her life in a warm blanket.
This same fearless drive propels Jane to defy her husband and to circumvent the rules she is to follow dealing with her poor clients, in particular the Harts. Jane does more than bring them used clothes or check to see how much food they have to determine their monthly allotment—she takes teenaged sisters Ivy and Mary Ella and Mary Ella’s two-year old son to the beach. And because Jane has crossed the bureaucratic line dividing her from these people, she can no longer hide behind the necessary lies the agency uses to manipulate its clients. One day Jane finds some blue pamphlets in an office cupboard. She opens one which is full of simple drawings like those of a child, but which reads:
You wouldn’t expect a moron to drive a train or a feebleminded woman to teach school…Then why should we expect them to be good parents? Voluntary sterilization saves taxpayer dollars and protects the community. (145)
Repugnant as the language from these pamphlets, dated 1947, is, the key word is voluntary. Jane discovers that her co-workers don’t blink at sterilizations, which they label appendectomies. There are many necessary lies in Chamberlain’s book, which Jane uncovers one by one to its dramatic conclusion.
I enjoyed both these books. Regarding How To Be a Good Wife, Booker-Prize winner Hilary Mantel says,
On the surface the book is a highly competent, creepy little chiller, but beneath…there’s a much bigger, equally disconcerting story about the nature of feminine experience.
But I found Necessary Lies more satisfying because its story is broader and richer with its dual points of view, which shift between fifteen-year old Ivy and twenty-two-year old Jane. While the bureaucratic attitude toward sterilization is frighteningly reminiscent of the Nazis, Chamberlain also shows the consequences of having a large number of children but few resources to care for them. Interestingly, in her afterword, she reveals that North Carolina continued its Eugenics program until 1979.
Take your pick –or read both.
Necessary Lies is due out in September; How To Be a Good Wife, in October.