Whenever I attempt to cross something serious from my to-do list – a budget, a blog post, an email to a coworker – the first thing I do is log on to Facebook. This is an essential part of my warm-up to work. I can’t focus on any tasks until I see whose birthday it is, which of the second cousins I’ve never met are travelling, and what route my friend from the west coast is hiking with her dog.
All this connection with people (most whom I barely know,) and I haven’t said a word. I am a stealthy observer of a life taking place elsewhere, while the very real demands of work and family await, patiently, refusing to disappear no matter how many websites I visit, no matter how many bon mots I compose and tweet. There’s a comfort in online interaction. A veil of anonymity. A protection of distance and solitude.
This brings us to Alice Buckle, heroine of Melanie Gideon’s compulsively readable Wife 22. Alice’s status: mid-forties, part-time drama teacher, mother of two, happily married. Strike the happily. Functioning in a marriage to William, a man Alice met back when her day job served to buffet her career aspirations of playwrighting. She’d been an advertising agency copy writer, William a creative. They flirted. They fell in love. And now, after almost twenty years of marriage, their relationship is comprised of cursory conversations, on-the-fly schedule management, and conflicting notions about what constitutes a healthy sex life. Alice learns more about William from his Facebook status updates than from him. They operate. They coexist. They live in the same house.
Wife 22 arrives with a letter from the publisher, heralding Alice Buckle as the latest in a line of age-representing characters like Bridget Jones (Bridget Jones's Diary) and Kate Reddy (I Don't Know How She Does It .) Alice is going to turn forty-five. This is a significant number; her mother died at the age of forty-four. Alice is about to cross a threshold beyond which she will travel unadvised. As busy as Alice is, there is something fundamentally missing in her life. Surrounded by a support group of women who have suffered the same maternal loss, Alice muses, “what was unspoken between us, what need never be explained or said, was that nobody would ever love us again like our mothers did.”
Alice has a full life, but is it fulfilling? Coloring everything she does is a melancholy shade of sadness, of feeling unloved. Alice spends a lot of time online, and impulsively accepts a piece of seeming-junk mail requesting her participation in an online survey about her marriage. She’s assigned an identity number – Wife 22 – and a case worker – Researcher 101. Presto! An intimate relationship with a stranger, a man without a name. Alice answers questions, both anecdotal and personal. Favorite book? Time you felt shame in front of your spouse? Do you have a secret from your significant other?
This anonymous correspondence between Wife and Researcher is, as Alice says repeatedly, “liberating.” Not only is she able to reflect on her relationship with William in a leisurely, uncensored way, but she is forging an attachment to her researcher that is both intimate and exhilarating, because it is clandestine. There are no names, no human interactions. There are emails. There are emotions shared in the form of cleverly arranged punctuation marks.
You can guess where this will lead. The fun of reading Alice's journey as a slightly dissatisfied forty-something is the sparkle to her personality. Her humor and neurotic methods of handling the changes in her life, her permeating sadness over her passed-away mom, her uneasy relationship with the failures in her career: this all seems a little real. It is easy to lose yourself in your computer and your "friends." Reading Wife 22 is a precious reminder that the people who matter are the ones in the next room.
Semi-colon. Hyphen. Close Parentheses.
Melanie Murray is a writer and editor, and the moderator of Romantic Reads, BN.com's all-romance, all-the-time community forum. You can follow her on Twitter at @Melanie_Murray and get all the latest Barnes & Noble book news from @BNBuzz.
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