The Good Wifeby Stewart O'Nan
On a clear winter night in upstate New York, two young men break into a house they believe is empty. It isn’t, and within minutes an old woman is dead and the house is in flames. Soon after, the men are caught by the police. Across the county, a phone rings in a darkened bedroom, waking a pregnant woman. It’s her husband. He wants her to know that he and his friend have gotten themselves into a little trouble. So Patty Dickerson’s old life ends and a strange new one begins.
At once a love story and a portrait of a woman discovering her own strength, The Good Wife follows Patty through the twenty-eight years of her husband’s incarceration, as she raises her son, navigates a system that has no place for her, and braves the scorn of her community.
“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
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THE GOOD WIFE
By STEWART O'NAN
FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUXCopyright © 2005 Stewart O'Nan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE 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."
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."
"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.
"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.
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.
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Meet the Author
Stewart O’Nan’s novels include Snow Angels, The Speed Queen, A Prayer for the Dying and The Night Country. Granta has named him one of the Twenty Best Young American Novelists. He lives in Connecticut.
- Avon, CT
- Date of Birth:
- February 4, 1961
- Place of Birth:
- Pittsburgh, PA
- B.S., Aerospace Engineering, Boston University, 1983; M.F.A., Cornell University, 1992
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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My favorite kind of book is one that makes me feel what the characters are feeling, and this one does that and more. I finished it a few days ago and continue to think about what life must be like for the family of a person in prison.
Awaiting the birth of a first child ought to be a period of happy anticipation shared by husband and wife. And then, the actual birth should be a celebration with the new parents buoyed by the good wishes of family and friends. None of this proved true for Patty Dickerson, although she deserved it for she was not only a good wife but a good woman. However, as we're often reminded, bad things do happen to good people. Stewart O'Nan has a gift for straight forward storytelling (The Night Country, Snow Angels). He doesn't need window dressing to create a novel that soon has the reader/listener totally involved with characters that remain with us long after the tale ends. 'The Good Wife' is a prime example of the power of O'Nan's pen. Patty is awakened in the dark of night with a phone call from her husband, Tommy. What he describes as some trouble is much more than that.- he's been involved in a series of robberies and now he has been arrested for murder. What follows is the suspense of a trial and then his incarceration. There are, of course, visits to jail, but Patty is basically left to her own resources to earn a living and raise their son, Casey. This is not a happy story, simply an authentic one extremely well told. Voice performer Laural Merlington does full justice to Patty who is both protagonist and narrator. At times stricken, at other times brave, always enduring, Merlington carries listeners through over a quarter of a century in Patty's life. - Gail Cooke
It was ok
Reading the description of this book, you may not consider it a love story. However, it certainly is in that you come to learn the dedication that the main character, Patty, has to her imprisoned husband Tommy. It is hard to believe all that she endured for all of those years, and it is moving to read about it. The author's style enables you to really feel you have been to where the story takes place (upstate NY) and have met the characters. You feel you really know Patty and both the tension and love that exists in her different relationships with family members. I think this would be a great read for a book club as I think there's lots that could be discussed. You may think the story starts off somewhat slowly but give it a chance, I enjoyed this book much more than I thought I would! I am sad it's over and miss Patty and Casey and Tommy.
This novel takes place in the town I grew up in. The descriptions ring absolutely true-the weather, the countryside and especially the people and their blue- collar lives of quiet desperation. Quietly heartbreaking.