O'Nan - The Good Wife

August 31, 2005

Stewart O'Nan
The Good Wife

O'Nan decided to write a novel about the families of the people who are locked up in America's prisons. He met with officials, toured the system, met with the family members, then assembled a composite, tweaked it for narrative interest, and wrote it up as a novel.

The good part: this is a compelling story of a young woman who raises a son while her husband is a guest of the state. We open with her lying in bed, pregnant and recently married, waiting for him to come home. He never comes. We discover that after a few drinks at a bar with his wife and some friends after a hockey game, she went home and he went out with a buddy for a bit of burglary. It went wrong, an old lady dies, and things progress from there. Nan follows the family through the various stages of the trial and then the incarceration. We see the troubles that she goes through trying to hold things together, trying to make ends meet, trying to stay in touch with her husband during a 28 year absence.

The questionable part: the novel is tightly grounded in space, small-town upstate New York. This is good, for we get a good feel for the people and personalities around our heroine, we follow her as she works on the county road crew, as she holds down some retail jobs, as she goes every weekend to visit her husband in a series of prisons. Nan makes it very clear that most of the people in those prisons, like most of the families coming every weekend to visit with them, are poor, black, and from the Southern part of the state. He made the conscious decision to write his novel about a working, white, working-class family. As a result the novel is very good on the emotions and travails of its heroine, but the heroine is closer to the people reading the book than she is to most of the people who are in that situation in real life. This builds sympathy, a good thing, but it does so in a manner that makes me wonder whether Nan believes that his readers would find a black woman a sympathetic subject.

It might be that O'Nan is a white guy from upstate New York who is writing what he knows - I have no idea where he lives, where he comes from, what voices he is comfortable writing. But I did get a scent of Mississippi Burning in the way that O'Nan structured his novel.

That said, it is a compelling story about emotions, change, and struggle. I liked it. I read it compulsively. I found myself thinking about the book long after I finished reading it. Good stuff.

Posted by Red Ted at August 31, 2005 11:40 AM | TrackBack
Post a comment

Remember personal info?