Saturday, July 10, 2010

An Inconvenient Wife by Megan Chance

Summers are for reading in my life and, since my sitting in the sun days are over, I have been spending much of this summer on my back porch with an iced tea and a book. I love it. I ordered Megan Chance's An Inconvenient Wife from Amazon on impulse. I tend to love books about the “upper classes” in Victorian New York. I love Edith Wharton and gobbled up Caleb Carr's two books (The Alienist and Angel of Darkness) on that period with relish. E.L. Doctrow's Ragtime is still one of my favorite books. So when I read the description of An Inconvenient Wife it sounded like my kind of book. It arrived Thursday at 4, I finished it last night at midnight.

I won't say it was a great book comparable to Doctrow, Carr and, of course, Wharton. It didn't have their scope but it was a darn entertaining read and, quite frankly, even though I suspected what might happen next, it was filled with surprises. In fact the last paragraph of the book is still on my mind --- did she really mean what I think she meant?

The story in brief is this: Lucy, descended from a very upper class, prestigious, old NY Money family is married to William, a nice enough young social climber who is certainly respectable but far beneath her status. Lucy is prone to “incidents”, she has failed to conceive, numbs herself with laudanum, is too outspoken in social situations, and generally embarrasses her socially-conscious husband. Her husband takes her from one doctor to another hoping to cure her embarrassing (to him) behavior. Eventually he hears about the controversial neurologist Victor Seth who treats patients using hypnotherapy. At first it seems Dr. Seth is something of a miracle worker --- until everything gets very confusing. That's as much as I'll tell you, I don't want to spoil the story.

The most disturbing aspect of the story is just how powerless women of that era were. Their fathers and husbands had total control over every aspect of their lives. How these poor women endured the social pressures of the time is a mystery to me. On the surface they were glittering, pampered jewels but underneath the illusion was a life that was so regimented, controlled and proscribed it was little better than a prison. Lucy is intelligent, talented and, above all, passionate --- all of which embarrass her husband. The scenes when she is confined to an asylum are disturbing but even more disturbing is her husband's reaction when she attempts to introduce some passion into their intimate life. “I thought you were a lady,” he tells her as he backs away.

It is never productive to judge the behaviors of characters in one era by the standards of a different era. I've read reviews of this book that express incredulity at the way various characters acted but within the context of the times, they seem perfectly believable to me. The writing style is clean, quick, efficient and highly readable. I'm a reader who gets annoyed when the writing style gets in the way of the story. That is never a problem in this book.

Ultimately, when the story is told and the book is closed there are still a lot of haunting questions. Is this what Dr. Seth really intended? Did he create a monster or did he bite off more than he could chew? How much was a product of science and how much of desire? And, above all, how much influence did he really have? Who used whom? I liked this book. I'll be thinking about it for awhile and that is something I appreciate writers for. Well done.

Thanks for reading.


P.S. Interesting read at Salon: Can the Internet Save the Book?

4 comments:

  1. Definitely going to order An Inconvenient Wife. Sounds like it is placed at about the same time as The Road to Wellville by T. Coraghessan Boyle. Remember that one? Great book!

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  2. Hmmm, I'll have to look at that --- it sounds familiar but I read so much I do tend to forget.

    Thanks. Nice to see you here. Are you on Facebook?

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  3. Yep, I'll friend ya.

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  4. Got it! Glad we can keep up. Do you still post on the "nasty board"? Haven't looked at it in ages but last time I did Jules and Dianne were still accusing all the new people of being me. Too funny.

    See you on Facebook...

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