Stewart O'Nan The Good Wife Reviewed by Terry D'Auray

Agony Column Home
Agony Column Review Archive

The Good Wife

Stewart O'Nan

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

US Hardcover First

ISBN: 0-374-28139-4

308 Pages; $24.00

Publication Date: April, 2005

Date Reviewed: July 17, 2005

Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray



General Fiction, Mystery

I was looking for a book to chase away the demons, the drug lords and the extreme violence that seems to proliferate in the crime novels I've chosen of late. Looking for fiction that was absorbing, intelligent and well written, but softer and quieter, maybe even soothing. O'Nan's 'The Good Wife' was my wish granted, an elegantly crafted story of an ordinary woman coping with an extraordinary circumstance, a little story with insight into big things.

Patty Dickerson, a young wife and mother living in upstate New York, finds her world turned upside down when her husband Tommy is arrested for robbery and murder and sentenced to thirty years in prison. Surprisingly unaware of her husband's criminal activities, Patty alternates between disbelief and acceptance as she faces first, the bewildering intricacies and intractable inequalities of the criminal justice system, and finally, endures twenty-eight long years as a single mother remaining ever-loyal to her imprisoned husband.

Told in the third person, with a descriptive plainness and simplicity that belie its sensitivity, O'Nan unfolds the story of Patty's blue-collar life exactly as it plays out - day-by-day, year-by-year. Hard winters, hard work, dinners cooked, cars broken, jobs found and jobs lost - the days, weeks, and years of Patty's life, the lives of her family, her husband, and her few friends, pass by in ways so ordinary and so inevitable, every reader will recognize this passage of time as their own.

But O'Nan's great skill turns on delving inside the ordinary, striking squarely at the interior of his characters, quietly illuminating the disappointments, hopes, fears and, ultimately, the resilience that lies below. Gradually, we begin to realize that what are presented as ordinary events are in fact little triumphs, that these simple and hard lives exhibit an extraordinary grace, strength and character. And we're hooked, readily turning the pages while finding ourselves somewhat surprised at being so absorbed. This is not a story fueled by drama and action, there is no political agenda and no take-away message. Readers are hooked not by what happens to whom, but by the slow and subtle revelation of the dimensions of these people in the fullness of their lives. What should be, and often is, a sad story of hardship and despair turns subtly and engagingly hopeful.

Phrased in O'Nans graceful, clean and elegant prose, and overflowing with perception and insight, Patty's unpretentious story, so quietly told, carries a strong echo that resonates long after the last page is finished.