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My Only Wife
By Jac Jemc
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
This marks the first title I have read from indie publisher Dzanc Books, and the happy truth is that Jac Jemc's My Only Wife is an enjoyable, engaging, and well-written book. I read it in a single afternoon, and I firmly believe that if I am going to sit with a story that long, then then writer has done the part of her work that consists of writing good sentences very well.
The book's premise is simple and straightforward. A man is left by his wife after ten years of marriage. She is a mysterious woman he has never fully understood. He revisits memories of her, trying to understand who she was.
The story relies heavily on its mythical style. Phrases are repeated again and again. Very short chapters are made up of very short paragraphs, which are made up of short sentences. Neither the narrator, his wife, nor a single character in the entire book, are named.
The book's style serves the plot, because the world of the book clearly isn't quite the real world. In the real world, upon the dissolution of a ten-year marriage, parents or friends would be called, the missing spouse would eventually be contacted, divorce papers would be served, the household would be divided, and closure would in this way be had. In short, in the real world, there would be no reason to "freeze on the details of her," because all of this would be sorted out before the door on the relationship closed for good. In a nutshell, that's the book's main weakness--it's very conceptual, but the concept is not strong or believable, which the author tries to cover up with intentionally vague and mysterious writing. This is never a good idea, and it's interesting to note that My Only Wife is edited by the author Matt Bell, whose debut novel In the house upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods suffers from the same problem in a much more irredeemable and pretentious way.
As it is told in My Only Wife, the husband and wife exist in a kind of vacuum, sealed off from the rest of the world. Because their world is literally just the two of them, they come to define themselves against each other. This causes the wife to push back against the loss of her personal identity in favor of the marital "we," which causes the husband to respond to his wife's resistance with puzzlement and anger. Obviously this is well-traveled ground in literature, from Madame Bovary to Anna Karenina to Revolutionary Road, and on up to Serena, Gone Girl and a host of others, but Ms. Jemc's aforementioned minimalist, mythical and somewhat oblique style allows her to explore the material in what feels like a unique way.
The style has its problems though. Foremost among these occurs as soon as you get past the concept and plot to the characters. We're told that the marriage at the center of the book has lasted ten years, and that's precisely when the willful suspension of disbelief required of the reader, the balance between real and unreal, becomes too much. The narrator's wife has a thousand and one quirky habits. She frays her clothes after buying them new! She locks herself in a closet and records stories on cassette tapes! She works as a waitress by choice! Strangers tell her intimate details about their lives! She paints! She likes old hats! She tears the pages out of books she likes and litters the streets with them, hoping they will provide comfort to a passerby! She's clumsy! She acts like a mafia Moll in bars! The list goes on and on and on. This might not have been too much had the duration of the marriage not been explicitly stated (or if the narrator's valid recollection of the marriage, i.e., his reliability, were somehow called into question), but as the story is written I did not believe that there was any way the marriage would have lasted ten years.
Almost everyone has had a relationship (usually in high school or college) where one person is in love with every little thing about the other, puts him or her high up on a pedestal, doesn't really bother with the messy details, and is crushed and confused after the idealized (and unreal, since in these cases we mostly love our invention) partner gets bored and leaves--but I would bet that very few, if any, ten year marriages end this way. After ten years, it's impossible both that the narrator's wife would have remained such a mystery to him, and that he would have remained so devoted to her. He would either know the facts by the ten year mark, or would have decided them on his own. It's an absolute certainty that the narrator would have grown to hate nearly every single one of his wife's little quirks by that time. The quirks, after all, are an act of defiance against the marital "we," the wife's pushback against the definition the husband wants to impose on her. I would almost have found the story more believable if it had ended in a murder (which it seemed to be trending toward a few times in the middle of the book). If this is that one marriage in a million where the wife remains a mystery and an enigma for ten full years, where the husband keeps her high up on a pedestal and never truly interacts with her for that whole time and is crushed and confused when she leaves, then I needed to know a little bit more about what made the relationship so unique.
Again though, I don't want to get too negative about this one, because it really was a quick and enjoyable read, and there is much to be impressed by here. Overall, My Only Wife left me nostalgic for a kind of simple, straightforward, well-written book that doesn't seem to exist very often anymore but ought to. Jac Jemc is an author to watch, and I've already purchased a few new titles from Dzanc Books and added them to my reading list.
Out of 10: 8.5