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The Good Wife

Stewart O'Nan

The Good Wife

Author:Stewart O'Nan
Publisher:Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

By Joab Jackson | Posted 5/4/2005

Is marital loyalty merely blind allegiance, obliviousness willed during love’s first flourish? Or is there a more powerful bonding agent at work? Stewart O’Nan’s ninth novel, The Good Wife, puts this question to its readers, as its main protagonist, Patty Dickerson, struggles to maintain a marriage to her husband, Tommy, who has been arrested for murder.

An early-morning phone call sets events in motion. The pregnant Patty had left Tommy at the bar a few hours earlier to celebrate his amateur soccer team’s winning game. He calls from jail, though, having been caught in a burglary. “It’s not as bad as it sounds,” Tommy tells her. Of course, it turns out to be far worse. The home that Tommy and drinking buddy Gary set out to rob was supposed to be vacated, he tells her, but the occupant, the elderly mother of a childhood acquaintance of Patty’s, was home. She was killed in the ensuing scuffle. In order to get rid of the evidence, the two then got the bright idea to burn down the house, which was when the cops showed up. Patty, convinced her husband is incapable of murder, assumes the job was Gary’s idea, that Tommy just offered the ride. But when the cops search their place, they find items from previous robberies, such as a stereo and a dirt bike. Gary’s lawyer outmaneuvers Tommy’s public defender, and Tommy ends up being tried for the murder.

As Tommy’s situation grows ever more dire, Patty remains resolute in supporting her man, and O’Nan sure seems to take delight in compounding her miseries. With Tommy away, she has to raise a baby alone, take a job with the county road crew, and move in with a mother who didn’t believe she should marry Tommy in the first place. She also has to fend off a growing attraction to a cute (and unincarcerated) local champion of the mini-race car circuit.

A lesser author could have rendered a story line like this into the proportion of a Lifetime channel weeper-of-the-week. But O’Nan keeps masterful control of the prose, which is taut and concrete. He portrays Patty and Tommy as ordinary people, too busy struggling with daily challenges to ever understand the full damage that his crime and incarceration have done to their lives. In the end, this subdued approach offers far more insight into the depths and limitations of devotion—both of Patty’s and our own.

E-mail Joab Jackson

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