The Good Wife

The Good Wife

3.8 7
by Stewart O'Nan
     
 

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On a clear winter night in upstate New York, two young men break in to a house. Within minutes, an old woman is dead and the house is in flames. Across the country, Patty Dickerson's phone rings. It's her husband. He wants her to know that he and his friend have gotten themselves into a little trouble. So Patty's old life ends and a strange new one begins. For the

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Overview

On a clear winter night in upstate New York, two young men break in to a house. Within minutes, an old woman is dead and the house is in flames. Across the country, Patty Dickerson's phone rings. It's her husband. He wants her to know that he and his friend have gotten themselves into a little trouble. So Patty's old life ends and a strange new one begins. For the next twenty-eight years, she must live with the absence caused by her husband's incarceration, attempt to raise her son, and brave the scorn of her community. As unflinching as it is heartrending, The Good Wife confirms O'Nan's place as one of our country's most wide-ranging and empathetic masters.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"One of the most authentic contemporary political novels I've read by an American writer. . . . [O'Nan] creates a mood so intense that, as long as the novel lasts, the reader can't escape it."—Nell Freudenberger, The New York Times Book Review

"The Good Wife is powerful, unforgettable. . . . O'Nan knows what Evan S. Connell knew . . . that an unassuming woman might be surprisingly complicated . . . .Patty Dickerson is a wonderful character, and this novel is astonishing."—The Washington Post Book World

"A moving, lyrical, assured piece of work . . . O'Nan is an experienced explorer of the irrationalities of being human."—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Meg Wolitzer
Like Evan S. Connell's classic 1959 novel Mrs. Bridge, Stewart O'Nan's The Good Wife is the story of an ordinary woman's life over a great sweep of time. Connell used short bulletin-like chapters to create a complete vision of his character's circumstances and limitations; O'Nan's chapters tend to be a little longer, but the effect is similar. The accretion of quotidian detail gives us a kind of timeline of the life of Patty Dickerson, a woman whose husband, Tommy, commits a crime while drunk at the beginning of the novel and ends up spending the remainder of it -- 28 years -- in jail for murder. Also like Mrs. Bridge, The Good Wife is powerful, unforgettable.
— The Washington Post
Library Journal
This engrossing and heartbreaking novel-O'Nan's follow-up to his nonfiction baseball memoir, Faithful-recounts the plight of Patty and Tommy Dickerson, a young married couple expecting their first child. One winter night, Tommy and a friend are arrested and accused of murdering an elderly woman during a bungled burglary; Tommy ends up in prison for 28 years, and Patty decides to stand by him throughout his sentence. The reader-along with many of Patty's family members-wants Patty to leave Tommy and get on with her life. Yet she visits him faithfully, learning the intricacies of prison visits and traveling long and then even longer distances as Tommy is transferred seemingly arbitrarily. All the while, she struggles to earn a living and raise their son. O'Nan has been named one of the best young American novelists by Granta, and it's evident here why. Highly recommended for all public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 8/04.]-Sarah Conrad Weisman, Elmira Coll. Lib., NY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The versatile, accomplished O'Nan follows up the ghostly doings of The Night Country (2003) with a quiet, realistic portrait of a woman waiting-for 28 years-for her husband to get out of jail. Patty is 27 and pregnant when she learns that husband Tommy and his buddy Gary have committed a string of burglaries and are now being charged with murder after an old woman dies during their latest break-in. With seasoned skill, O'Nan spends the first third of the story (through the trial) delineating Patty's situation. Relations are tense with her widowed mother, who has always disapproved of Tommy, and with older sister Shannon, who boasts a more affluent husband and lifestyle. Younger sister Eileen, her closest family ally, is broke, blue-collar, and a little raffish, like Patty and Tommy. In the trial, Gary turns state's witness, Tommy gets 25 to life, and Patty is left to raise baby Casey as a single mother with few job skills. The subsequent scenes episodically sketch her life, front-loaded toward the early years of Tommy's incarceration. Patty learns to cope with the monolithic prison system, at best indifferent to and often actively abusive of the convicts' families. O'Nan focuses on Patty's struggles and growth as she reluctantly moves in with her mother, endures a series of grinding, poorly paid jobs, and sees the scars Tommy's absence inflicts on their slightly aloof son, who nonetheless matures into a decent, responsible young man. The deliberately low-key narrative has few dramatic events-Tommy's abrupt transfer to a more distant prison is the most jarring-and even fewer discussions of people's feelings. Patty simply lives her commitment to her marriage every day for 28 years, and webelieve in it because we believe in the fully dimensional, ordinary but extraordinary character O'Nan has created. She deserves her (qualified) happy ending, long though it is in coming. Another fine effort from a writer who in ten years has crafted nine novels dramatically different in tone and content but impressively consistent in their moral seriousness and artistic conviction.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780312425012
Publisher:
Picador
Publication date:
03/21/2006
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
320
Sales rank:
358,090
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.72(d)

Read an Excerpt

THE GOOD WIFE


By STEWART O'NAN

FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX

Copyright © 2005 Stewart O'Nan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-374-28139-4


Chapter One

THE OTHER SIDE OF MIDNIGHT

PARTY'S ASLEEP WHEN IT BEGINS, WAITING FOR HIM IN THE DARK.

She goes to Tommy's game to see him play. He scores his first goal of the season, but she's pregnant and can't drink, so there's no reason for her to go out with the rest of the team after. She's tired, her back hurts from work and sitting on the hard bleachers, and she uses that as an excuse. It's why she brought her car in the first place. She teases him in the parking lot, saying she might have a surprise for him when he gets home. "Be good," she says, and kisses him, the ends of his wet hair needling her cheek.

It's freezing in the Dart, the steering wheel burning through her gloves. The defrost doesn't work, and all the way home she swipes at the windshield, tries to breathe lightly. Farms sail by in the night, the snowy fields ghostly, chore lights showing a corner of a barn door, a skeletal gas pump. The muddy ruts of the drive crumble under her tires, hard as chocolate. When she slides into bed the sheets are chilly on her skin.

The waterbed is huge and new, the one real piece of furniture they own. She lies propped in the middle, reading The Other Side of Midnight, a novel her mother has already declared trash. Instead of her flannel nightshirt, she's wearing a sheer black peignoir that shows off her impressive new breasts. She's brushed her hair out the way Tommy likes it, the strawberry blonde fan setting off her freckles. She reads with her mouth slightly open, showing the pointed canines he calls her fangs. She could almost pass for a sexy vampire, except she's wearing the gold-framed Ben Franklins she's had since high school, very Jan Brady.

In the book, two of the characters are fucking in a cramped airplane bathroom, something Patty-who's never been on a plane-finds impossibly glamorous and unlikely but which makes her even hornier.

It's been a while. The truest test of love, she's always thought, is making love, and while Tommy still comes to her now, he's too careful, too quiet. She misses their first crazy days together, when he'd come out of the bathroom naked and walking on his hands, as if daring her to knock him over or pin him against a wall.

She figures he'll be late. They'll close the Iroquois and he'll come in humming, bumping into things. She waits for the chug of his truck, the swish of the storm door, the shock of his hands on her, waits, warming, resting her eyes now, the book still propped on her stomach, until she slips all the way under, splayed beneath the heavy, comforter.

For a while The Other Side of Midnight lies tented on her chest, then capsizes, her place lost, the Kleenex bookmark somewhere in the tangle of covers. She's snoring, a rhythmic click in her sinuses and then a long braying draw that would embarrass her if she knew.

The night-light is on in the bathroom, glazing the sink. In the kitchen the faucet drips into a sponge.

She has no idea that as she sleeps he's in another woman's bedroom; that a few miles across the fields he and his best friend Gary are fighting with this woman, who's woken from her own solitary sleep and attacked them with the first thing at hand-a glass of water.

The phone sits on the floor by his side of the bed, alive inside its shell. Outside, the winter sky turns, Orion winking in the clear night air, a hunter's moon sculpting the drifts. Here, before it all begins, there's still time-time revolving along with the temperature on the display outside the Tioga State Bank in town, time ticking in the gears behind the lit face of the county, courthouse belltower (quaint as a Christmas card), time circling like the sweeping red second hand of the dashboard clock in his truck, hidden in the turnaround down by Owl Creek.

Until now-until the phone rings-she's been happy, grateful to have him, and a place of their own. Their marriage, her first improbably successful campaign against her mother, is everything she wished for, and while her mother still considers him wild, with Casey on the way that topic's off limits. Now all her mother can complain about is Eileen living with her no-good boyfriend and Shannon not visiting. By default, Patty's the favorite again. She's the one their mother calls when she needs someone to bring extra chairs or make dessert, someone to drive her to the doctor. Except for marrying Tommy, she's reliable.

Miles away, the glass is broken on the carpet, the front of Tommy's shirt wet, though he doesn't notice.

The phone-no, not yet.

It's her bladder that wakes her. She mutters, surprised at the brightness. She gives up on her bookmark, sets the paperback on the headboard and clicks off the light. Her bottom sinks into the soft waterbed as she swings her legs free and levers herself out, pushing off the frame to lift her own weight. She's never been so ungainly-ugly, she thinks, and his stabs at reassuring her only make it worse. She doesn't turn on the light in the bathroom, just sits in the warm yellow glow, head bent, one elbow resting on the cool sink.

When she pads back to bed, she could trip over the phone, kick it open so the call will never come. But she doesn't. She goes all the way around, as if it would be a jinx to get in on his side. She lights the vanilla candle on the headboard, the flame doubled in the built-in mirror, then adjusts her peignoir and the covers to her advantage, but in a minute she's asleep again, snoring.

In the house on Blodgett Road, Tommy and Gary stand over the old woman, who's not moving.

"Jesus Christ," Gary says.

"I thought she was supposed to be gone," Tommy accuses him. "I thought the place was supposed to be empty."

"Shut up."

But this is invented too, a scene she doesn't want to watch yet is drawn to over and over. They could be saying anything to each other, or nothing, stunned by their own violence and bad luck. It's like watching a nightmare, the rising helplessness before the disaster she knows is going to happen.

It's happened. The two of them grab the state's evidence they've come to steal-the dead woman's dead husband's guns: a pair of beautiful his 'n' hers Ithaca ten-gauges with carved stocks, a vintage Colt buffalo gun, a brace of muzzle loaders. Gary has his hockey bag, and old towels to friction tape around the barrels. They go ahead as if the plan is working. At some point they'll have to stop and talk about the body, but not yet, not yet.

A draft snakes through the room and the flame wavers, dangerous. It's nearly two and she has to get up at six to be at work. It's supposed to snow tomorrow; she needs to leave time for the drive. She's been tired lately, nodding off over her circuit boards, the magnifying lens making her eyes go weird, the hot solder gagging her. She's been good, not smoking for the baby, only drinking Sanka. When she gets her leave, she'll make breakfast for Tommy in her bathrobe, kiss him goodbye, then crawl back in bed again, the morning sun warming the room.

By this time the call has come in on the truck. A neighbor on Blodgett marked it driving by with its lights off; dark figures walking out of the trees. A car from the sheriff's department is gliding cross-county to investigate the complaint, code two, silent approach. It's a slow night and the roads are empty, the traffic signals clunking unseen. The deputy slides through a red light. The bridge over the East Branch is slippery.

Gary's decided they have to burn the house down, and starts by lighting the drapes. The sheer fabric flashes, taking a snapshot of the body on the floor. Tommy can't stop him, and joins in. There's kerosene in the garage.

The fingerprints are his, she won't try to deny it. But she knows him too. She can't picture him sloshing the can around the house out of desperation, the carpet wet underfoot, fire leaping onto furniture, climbing the walls. She's imagined it happening to her, traded places with the old lady a thousand times. She could be the one picked up and repositioned under the covers, the one whose pillow burns, whose eyelashes curl.

Instead, she sleeps by candlelight-sleeps deeply now, plowing the hours toward dawn, work, the cold car again, scraping snow off the windshield while the tailpipe chuffs out clouds.

The windows are glowing when the deputy pulls up, the house pulsating like a spaceship about to take off. He blocks the road with his Fury and radios dispatch to send the fire department and the nearest backup-the night supervisor, who reads the situation and calls in the state police.

Inside, Tommy and Gary see the car and understand they're fucked. The only thing to do is slip out the back and get across the creek somehow. It makes sense for Gary-it's not his truck-but why does Tommy follow him? Because he does, down the steps of the back deck and across the sloping lawn, the crust crunching underfoot, two sets of prints headed into the woods, easy to follow as a trail of breadcrumbs in a fairy tale. They splash through the freezing creek, their boots filling, squishing as they scramble up the long, contoured hillside, slipping, falling and going on, not knowing another car is shuddering down the farm road right for them. Its lights crest the hill and blind them, and then a spotlight in their eyes.

If she dreams anything in these last minutes, she doesn't remember it, and she's tempted to see this as further proof that she's a fool, no hints or intuitions, just completely clueless. Where did she think the money for the truck came from?

They're handcuffed and shoved into different cars, driven the silent miles to the Public Safety. Building in Owego, fingerprinted and interrogated separately, both of them standing on their Miranda rights. Each is allowed one five-minute phone call.

The fire is pretty much out now. The Halsey Valley volunteers stand around the yard, dousing a pile of melted vinyl siding. In the bedroom, the county coroner leans over the old lady, who rests on the smoking coils of the box spring, her arms curled in front of her face as if to protect herself.

In these last minutes, Patty wonders, would she tell herself to run? Take whatever money's in the house, throw her clothes in the car and just drive? Would it even matter? Because what happens next is inevitable.

THE SOUND OF LIES

SHE'S PREPARED TO HEAR THE HOSPITAL. "I'm okay," he says. "Listen, me and Gary got in a little spot tonight. I'm in jail."

"What did you do?" she asks, afraid it's another DUI.

"I don't know, we haven't been charged yet. It's going to be a bunch of stuff, it looks like."

"What is 'a bunch of stuff'?"

"It's not as bad as it sounds."

"Tommy, what the hell is going on?"

"I don't really want to talk about it over the phone, if you understand what I'm saying. I need you to be here first thing in the morning, and I mean first thing. Call Russ and tell him I won't be in. Call Perry and find out who that lawyer was he had-wake him up if you have to."

"Jesus, Tommy, will you tell me what happened?"

"-and listen: whatever you do, do not call Donna. If she calls, don't talk to her."

"Why not?"

"Just don't. And see what kind of money we can put together for bail. There's a place in Elmira Perry knows, they're twenty-four hours. If you can't get Perry, try Shawn."

The lawyer is the most important thing, then bail. Sometime tomorrow she'll have to come in and get the truck.

She's wide awake but struggling to follow along. She needs to write all this down.

"Hon," he says, "I've only got a minute left. I love you."

"I love you," she says.

"I'm sorry."

"It's going to be all right," she says, but the line cuts off.

She hangs up, whacking at the base till it fits. It's four in the morning and cold in the house. She knots her robe closed over the peignoir and toes into her slippers, turns the lights on as she scuffs to the kitchen. The windows are black mirrors, the walls of a box. When she pulls out a chair, it sounds loud.

The first person she calls is Eileen.

"Okay," Eileen says, like it's no problem. "So it could be anything. And Gary's there with him."

"It sounded bad."

"It can't be that bad," Eileen says, "or else they wouldn't be setting bail. And don't go with the place in Elmira, they're shitheads."

There's no point calling the place in Waverly. They can't do anything until he's arraigned. The court has to set bond, and that depends on the charge and what judge they get.

"I don't know how any of this works," Patty admits.

"Want me to come over there?"

"No, that's okay."

"Right," Eileen says, "I'm there. There's no way I'm going back to sleep."

And like that the situation is under control. Together, the two of them can handle anything, just like when they were kids, teaming up against Shannon when she babysat them.

She still needs to deal with the lawyer. Perry's number is on the list taped to the wall. She thinks he'll be pissed but dials it anyway. She can always blame it on Tommy.

She should be calling her mother.

Perry's line is busy.

"That's weird," she says, and as she hangs up, the phone rings under her hand.

For a second she doesn't pick up, as if she's been caught.

It's Donna, though for a moment Patty doesn't recognize her. She's crying, her voice high and ragged with sniffling.

"I can't believe it," she sobs. "They fucking killed someone-do you believe that? They fucking killed someone."

"What?" One arm curls low around her belly. "What are you talking about?"

"This old lady, they were ripping her off-"

She remembers what Tommy said, and recovers. "Donna, I'm sorry, I can't talk to you."

"They tried to burn her house down."

"Not on the phone. Donna-"

"They're such assholes. Did you know they were doing this shit?"

"We're not supposed to talk on the phone."

"I'm not fucking stupid, Patty. The cops busted them right there."

Now she needs to know the details, but he told her not to talk with Donna-and right away she understands that if what Donna is telling her is true, then only one of them killed the old woman, only one of them is a killer, and it's Gary, and she'll do what she has to to protect Tommy from him.

"Donna, I can't talk to you. I'll see you tomorrow."

"I don't know what to do," Donna says.

Patty, tells her to calm down, to start getting money together for bail and looking for a lawyer, the same advice Eileen gave her, and yet she feels like she's lying, withholding some crucial piece of information.

She doesn't hang up, just holds the button down for a second, then calls Perry. This time it rings.

"I heard," he says.

A decent lawyer's probably going to cost around ten thousand.

The number stumps her.

Continues...


Excerpted from THE GOOD WIFE by STEWART O'NAN Copyright © 2005 by Stewart O'Nan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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