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It is a truth universally acknowledged that one person’s happiness is frequently bought at the expense of another’s.
My husband Will, a politician to his little toe, did not entirely get the point. He maintained that sacrifices in the cause of the common good were sufficient in themselves to make anyone happy. And since Will had sacrificed a significant slice of his family life to pursue his ambitions as, first, a promising MP, then a member of the Treasury Select Committee, then minister, and— latterly—as one who was tipped to be a possible Chancellor of the Exchequer, it followed that he should have been supremely happy.
I think he was.
But was I?
Not a question, perhaps, that a good wife should ask.
On our nineteenth wedding anniversary, Will and I promised each other to be normal. To this end, Will carried me off to the theater, ordered champagne, kissed me lovingly and proposed the toast: “To married life.”
The play was Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and the production had excited attention. Although I could see that he was aching with tiredness, Will sat very still and upright in the seat, not even relaxing when the lights went dim. An upright back was part of the training he had imposed on himself never to let down his guard in public. Although I am better than I used to be, I am still laggardly in that department. It is so tempting to slump, hitch up my skirt and laugh when my sense of the ridiculous is tickled—and there was much in our life that was ridiculous. Politicians, ambassadors, constituents, coffee mornings, chicken suppers, state occasions...a wonderful, colorful caboodle replete with the ambitious and the innocent, the failures and the successes.
Of necessity, Will laughed with circumspection—so much so that, once, I accused him of having lost the ability through lack of use. There was only a tiny hint of a smile on his lips when he explained to me that one small error of attention could undo years of work.
I sneaked a look at him from under eyelids that still stung from the morning’s regular date with the beauty salon. Dyed eyelashes were a necessity because, when I do laugh, my eyes water. In the early part of Will’s career, when I was being scrutinized and weighed and measured from head to foot by sharp eyes in the constituency, Mannochie, Will’s watchful and faithful political agent, had been forced to whisper discreetly, “Train tracks, Mrs. S,” which meant my mascara had smudged. There was no option but to laugh off that one and whisk myself to the nearest mirror for a quick repair job. This was part of the bargain struck between Will and me. In short, to look good as the minister’s wife was to be good.
Dressed in pale, shimmery blue, Nora made her entrance onto the stage and her husband asked anxiously, “What’s happened to my little songbird?”
Will reached over for my hand, the left one, which bore his wedding ring and the modest ruby we had chosen together. It was small because, newly engaged and glowing with love at the prospect of shared happiness and mutual harmony, I had not wished him to spend too much money on me. Hindsight is a great thing, and I have come to the conclusion that modesty is wasted when it comes to jewelry. The touch of his hand was unfamiliar, strange almost, but I had grown used to that, too, and it was not significant. Beneath the unfamiliarity, Will and I were connected by our years of marriage. That was indisputable.
At the end of the play, still in her pale blue, Nora declared, “I don’t believe in miracles any longer.” The sound of the front door opening and closing as she left the house was made to sound like a prison gate clanging shut.
Someone in the audience gave a little cheer. It echoed above the perfectly groomed heads in the stalls, and there was a rustle of collective embarrassment at this demonstration of female solidarity.
When Parliament sat, Will lived in London during the week, in a mansion block in Westminster and it was London where he did his deals in the Members’ tearoom, and struck alliances. In the old days, he came down to Stanwinton at weekends to nurse his constituency and his family, in that order, and I came up to London infrequently. Now that Chloe, our daughter, was eighteen, I was free to come up to London most weeks, but tonight we were driving home.
I watched the cold, eerie city lights give way to the shadows of the suburbs. At home, I often played the game of not-turning-on-the-light-until-the-very-last-minute. I loved that moment of transition between light and dark, and the textures of light and shade. I had learned that if I remained quite still something surprising might swim up out of the spaces in my head. Sometimes only a fleeting thought. Sometimes a revelation or a conclusion. Its chief element was of surprise and I found myself increasingly craving the delight of discovery. It was the moment to consider peace, happiness, expectation,...but, lately, I suppose, to reflect on a certain, creeping restlessness and a growing sense that it was time for a change.
Will cleared his throat—I recognized the signal—and began to talk about his project of the moment: the controversial European initiative to tax anyone with a second car. “There’s no question, but we have to do something before the world chokes. We can’t stand by and do nothing; we must show that we mean what we say.” He turned. “Fanny? Are you listening?”
“Of course,” I said. “Look at the road, Will, not at me.”
But I was thinking of the days when my energy had been devoted to Will’s political life and objectives and wondering why I did not feel the same. It was not as though we were old. I still loved Will, although sometimes ripples of irritation and exasperation made me forget I did—but that was marriage. Our life still held many possibilities.
“Fanny...? Do you agree with what I am doing?”
“I don’t think it stands much of a chance,” I replied. “I don’t think people always want to be told what is good for them.”
“So I’m on my own on this one?” he said with the tone of one well used to arguing a case. “Fair enough.”
An hour or so later, he nosed the car into the drive, unsnapped his seat belt and reached for the red box filled with papers, which required attention, that was never far from a minister’s side.
“I hope you enjoyed the evening.” He hefted the box onto his knee and added, “We’ve made it Fanny, haven’t we? Nineteen years...”
I felt a sudden, intense disquiet. Or was it bewilderment? Where had those years gone? One of the saints, I think it was Theresa, wrote that the soul has many rooms. So does a life, and a marriage. Motherhood, too, and I had been curious to shine a light into each one. But having struggled through the muffling intimacies of being a wife and a mother, I was now asking: Which room was mine alone? Into which still, private room could I retreat?
I smiled at him. “It was a lovely evening.” Then I leaned over and kissed him.
When we let ourselves into the house, I realized that I’d made the mistake, unlike Nora, of continuing to believe in miracles. The commotion that greeted us—Meg shouting and Sacha, her son, cajoling—meant only one thing. Will’s sister had been drinking.
“Why?” I murmured. “Why now? She’s been off it for months.”
Will’s face had tightened into the expression of frozen distress that I knew so well and dreaded. “I’ll deal,” I said. “You go and check on your papers. Otherwise you won’t get any sleep.” I pushed him gently in the direction of the study. “Go.”
I went down the passage that ran the width of the house and waited a moment or two at her door. The noises had stopped.
I found him in Meg’s bedroom, manhandling his mother’s inert body onto the bed, and hastened to help. Meg was hunched on her side. I smoothed her hair back from her forehead. She was as fair as I was dark, and much smaller boned. “Has she had a lot?”
Sacha arranged her legs into a more comfortable position. “I’m not quite sure.” He added with an effort, “Sorry.”
“It’s not your fault.” I bent down to retrieve a whiskey bottle from the floor. It was still three- quarters full. “I don’t think she’s had that much...”
“She’s been brilliant lately, and didn’t touch a drop while you were away.” Sacha’s nu-metal band was struggling to get off the ground, and he was frequently away traveling the circuit.
He flinched and I could have kicked myself. “It isn’t you. It isn’t you coming back....It’s the time of year, or an unexpected bill or—”
“She rang my father today. He wants to renegotiate the alimony. That’s probably it.”
“Yes. That’s it.” Meg had never got over Rob walking out on her when Sacha was tiny. “Talking to your father is always tricky for her.”
“I know,” he said. He spoke far too wearily for a twenty-four-year-old. I slid my arms around my surrogate son. He smelled so clean. He always did, however many smoky, drink- filled places he’d worked in. “Don’t despair.”
“I don’t,” he lied.
“Shall I sit with her?”
Sacha propelled me toward the door. This was between him and his mother and, now that he was older, he tried to keep it that way—because it was so terrible and so intimate.
I turned to look at him. “It was only once, remember,” I said. “There’s been months and months of nothing.”
In Meg’s kitchen, her lost battle was marked out by a trail of half-empty coffee cups. The one by the phone was still full, and signaled the moment of defeat. “I hate you for knowing when to stop,” she had once told me.
I harvested the cups and washed them up, scrubbing angrily at their brown, scummy rims. Through the window, I watched a vixen slide along the darkened flower bed. She was thinner than a London fox. They say that foxes are safest in the city, but I wonder if they are plagued by a genetic memory of the past. Do they miss the smell of corn in high summer, the crispness of frosted grass?
I left the mugs to drain and found Chloe slumped at the kitchen table beside a glass of apple juice. I bent over and kissed her. She smelled of shampoo and her soft cheeks were slippery with face cream.
She rubbed her eyes. “Couldn’t really sleep,” she said. “Is Aunt Meg OK?”
I trod warily. Will and I had been clever enough to hide the worst of Meg’s excesses from our daughter. Chloe was still too young to be told the absolute truth, but too old to be lied to. “Fine.”
She looked anxious and a little bewildered. With her fair hair and dark eyes, she was a smaller, infinitely more delicate version of Will. One day she would be beautiful and that promise gave me deep, unqualified pleasure. “Did you and Dad enjoy the play?”
“It was brilliant; we had a lovely evening.”
She polished off the apple juice. “It’s nice that you two went out together.”
“Did you do all your homework?”
She shrugged irritably. “Brigitte stood guard and I told her to get lost... but I did it.”
Brigitte was our temporary au pair-cum-housekeeper, who took her duties very seriously.
She shook her head.
“Bed, then.” I pulled her to her feet, hustled her upstairs and settled her. I hunkered down beside her and whispered, “Everything’s fine.”
Chloe closed her eyes. “Do I really have to go to Pearl Veriker’s funeral tomorrow?”
“Dad says we must. No argument.”
“It’s not fair,” Chloe hissed. “Just because you have to do all these ghastly things, you make me as well.”
“Go to sleep.”
I hovered for a minute or two outside her room. Poor Chloe. She would learn that every shared life, every separate life, has bloodstained patches and tattered remnants of compromise. Sometimes, too, the dull ache of small martyrdom.
Will was already in bed and I slid in beside him. “Chloe woke up. I’ve tucked her back in.”
“Good.” He hesitated. “Is she... is Meg all right?”
“What triggered her off do you think?”
I thought about it. “She and Rob talked on the phone about money, but I suspect that it had something to do with our anniversary.”
Our conversation went round and round on the subject of Meg. As it always did. Will scratched his head. “I would give much to think that Meg was happy and sorted out.” He turned to me. “She has a lot to thank you for, Fanny. So do I.”
My feelings for Meg could be ambivalent, but being thanked by Will was sweet.
He stirred restlessly. “What do you think is best, Fanny?” he said. “Do you think we should arrange more help for her? Could you manage to do that?”
“I could, but it might be better if you could talk to her. Maybe she needs a bit of your attention.”
He thought about this. “I haven’t got the time at the moment. But I will when I can. I promise.”
I used to dream of a big, generous, blowsy household where children rustled and murmured in the bedrooms—two, three, even four of them. And every night, I would do the rounds. “This is Millie,” I would say, smoothing fair tangles away from her face. “This is Arthur,” removing the thumb from his mouth. “And this...this one is Jamie, the terror.”
But it had not happened that way. After Chloe there were no more babies. My body pulled and strained to obey my longings, but it could not do what I asked of it. Sometimes they haunt me, my nonchildren—those warm, sleeping, rosy bodies, the children-who-never- were—and I listen out for them playing under the eaves.
“I don’t mind,” Will said to me once. “We have Chloe, that’s enough. We look after her. I look after you. You look after me, Fanny. Be content, please.”
“Don’t you mind at all?” I asked.
He touched my cheek. “I mind for you. I mind anything that hurts you.”
Yet, as it turned out, my household was full, and we had been happy. First Chloe was born, and I was catapulted into the terror and mystery and exultation of a love that would never die. Then Meg came to live with us; Sacha too, after his sixteenth birthday. The au pairs came and went; the party workers slipped in and out, each leaving a ghostly imprint on the atmosphere, their rustles and murmurs dissolving into the general murmur of life.
The Good Wife Strikes Back takes a very different route but explores emotional territory that will be familiar to readers of Buchan's previous novel. Fanny Savage is the "good wife" of the title -- she has faithfully performed her role as the spouse of an ambitious politician, and after 19 years, the question arises: What has become of her own life, dreams, and career ambitions? With a brisk, eloquent intelligence, she forces herself to confront her own sense of incompleteness.
Fanny explores this dilemma by returning in memory to the early days -- and crises -- of her marriage to Will. Buchan paints an image of a nearly overwhelmed young wife and new mother that many readers will instantly recognize. Book clubs will find that the complexity of Fanny's situation provokes some fascinating discussions -- how far should a woman go to preserve her marriage? And how much should any person be prepared to sacrifice for their spouse or child? Buchan finds plenty of humor in Fanny's world of compromises -- but when tragedy strikes her family, the question of Fanny's divided loyalties is unmistakably poignant.
The novel's most daunting question is raised by the character of Fanny's sister-in-law Meg; Her alcoholism makes her a family burden, which falls too often on Fanny's shoulders. Meg's often tempestuous relationship with Fanny complicates her relationship with her husband and daughter, and ultimately leads to one of the most painful crises of Fanny's life. Book clubs will appreciate the clear-eyed approach that Buchan takes to the problem of addiction. But they will equally applaud the way that The Good Wife Strikes Back is able to blend humor and sadness, penetrating wit and deep feeling. Once again, Buchan has woven together these disparate notes to create a symphony in which both discord and harmony find their place. Bill Tipper
Introduction and Discussion Questions from the Publisher
On Fanny and Will Savage's nineteenth wedding anniversary, they attend Ibsen's A Doll's House. In the play, the main character, Nora, struggles to break free from social conventions. Elizabeth Buchan could not have chosen a more appropriate opening to The Good Wife Strikes Back, a novel in which Fanny, the wife of a career politician, finds herself at a personal crossroads after nearly two decades of marriage. In depicting Fanny's "creeping restlessness and growing sense that it was time for a change" and her path toward personal fulfillment, the author paints a bittersweet yet tender portrait of an imperfect marriage, the bonds of family, and finally -- contentment.
Fanny's journey to reclaim her identity awakens in her a yearning to return to her aging father's wine business. When he dies suddenly of a heart attack, Fanny decides she must go to Fiertino, Italy, her father's birthplace, to scatter his ashes. There, against her husband's wishes, Fanny sets up a makeshift home in Italy, where she begins to reflect upon all of the years spent caring for other people -- her alcoholic sister-in-law, Meg; her daughter, Chloe; Will and his career -- and to wonder what toll those years have taken on her. One morning, sitting on Casa Rosa's steps, she wonders, "How often do we have time to seek our secret selves and bring them to light? To examine and say, with delighted recognition, so this is what I am? This is what I might be? This is where I will go?" But confrontations also await Fanny in Fiertino when Meg arrives in a whirlwind, forcing both women to confront the complexities of their relationship.
Then a sudden accident tests the true fabric of the Savage family, and Fanny leaves Italy to return to Stanwinton, where a changed world awaits her. Will has lost a family member as well as his political office. Chloe is traveling and discovering herself, so their nest is empty. Together, the couple must rebuild their lives without the bustle of their daughter or the trappings of Will's career or Meg's ever-looming illness. In the end, Fanny discovers that one of her lifelong passions is a perfect metaphor to describe what she's learned about life: "If good wine takes time to make, and I know it does, so does a home. It was just that we, it, and the family had taken a little while to come together, to settle down, and grow a ripeness and body."
Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the importance of opening the novel with Ibsen's A Doll's House. Did it have any bearing on what you thought the ending might be?
2. Fanny seems to have deep connections to particular places in her life -- such as Ember's House, the home she shares with Will, the tree house, her mother's house in Montana, and Casa Rosa. Compare and contrast the different feelings they evoke for Fanny and how you feel about your first home or your grandmother's home, etc.
3. Did you find Will to be a sympathetic character? Were you surprised by Fanny's father's advice to her after Will's transgression? As a reader, were you able to forgive him?
4. Was it unfair of Fanny to begin to buck her "duties" as a politician's wife? Do you think she fully understood what she was giving up when she married Will and again when she backed out of her father's wine business?
5. Were there any parallels between Will and Meg's relationship and Chloe and Sacha's? Were these relationships inappropriate? Why or why not?
6. How do you think Fanny's mother affected her daughter's decisions? How did you feel about her mother? Did you fault her for the choices she made?
7. What do you think you would have done in Fanny's circumstances? Did the ending surprise you?
8. Do you think the author has an opinion about marriage and its affect on a woman's identity?
9. In your experience, is it possible to strike a fair balance between being a mother and wife as well as your own woman? Is it inevitable that, for a time, your identity becomes just that of mother/wife? Is that wrong?
A Conversation with Elizabeth Buchan
Your previous novel, Revenge of the Middle Aged Woman, also revolved around a marriage -- albeit one in greater disarray than Fanny and Will's. Do you find marriage a particularly rich area for a writer? If so, why?
From the novelist's point of view, marriage is an endlessly fertile theme. It can wither, flourish, demand, cradle, discourage, and encourage -- sometimes all at the same time. Most of us embark, at one time or another, on a long-term partnership, and, with women now liberated, the challenge is how to make it work on this new basis.
There are statistics that count infidelity as the number-one reason for divorce. After Will's transgression, were you able to forgive him? Did you want his character to be seen as a sympathetic one?
Will is guilty of a moment's stupidity and carelessness -- and most of us are guilty of that in one form or another. He should be forgiven. Having said that, his infidelity has consequences and he has to face up to them. I conceived of him in a sympathetic light but it is true that he does, in the first part of marriage, get away with quite a lot. One of the points of the book was to suggest that men's and women's lives operate in different ways. As Will grows older and less successful than he hoped, it is clear that Fanny, who is now free of child care and is consequently surer and more experienced, can step into the breach and negotiate what she wants from a position of much greater strength.
Did you know the outcome of this novel when you began or did Fanny take on a life of her own and drive the plot herself? Generally, how close do you become to your characters?
Yes, I had the form and structure of the novel very clear in my head from the first. But, as usual, I was surprised by what happened in the journey from A to Z. That is one of the pleasures of writing and creating. I love my characters and I know that the book is beginning to take life when I wake up in the morning with a piece of dialogue or a plot ratchet as first my conscious thought. Fanny was always there in my head -- she and I talked often! She is not the kind of woman who is going to run the country -- the majority of us are not -- but I wanted her to be the sort of character whom one meets every day and who tries to live her life with grace.
Which of the characters was the most difficult for you to make a real, multifaceted person? Why?
Will was difficult. He comes from a long line of alpha males who were used to making certain assumptions about their wives and families. Tracing his journey from the young man with ideals to the older man whose ideals have dwindled into ambition took a lot of thought.
How do you feel about marriage? Do you think it will survive as an institution as relationships between men and women continue to evolve into something different than they were decades ago?
Possibly. Having said that, marriage is about the one institution that can still root us, and most of us crave some kind of security in our daily lives. Yet perhaps a greater realism has to be faced as we are living longer, and fidelity -- the physical kind -- will come not to be regarded as an absolute.
Which novelists have influenced your writing the most? What are you reading now? I think it is very difficult to escape the influence of the great nineteenth-century novelists -- Jane Austen, George Eliot, Flaubert, and Tolstoy -- who set such high standards. I admire hugely Scott Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh, Ian McEwan, and Margaret Atwood. For the days when one needs a reading lollipop, I retire to the sofa with Nancy Mitford or P. D. James. I have just finished reading Siri Hustvedt's What I Have Loved, which is sensationally good.
What are you working on now?
My latest novel takes two very different women, one contemporary and one in the 1950s, and compares and contrasts their intimate, inner lives. As they try to make sense of the conflicting demands of liberation and duty, freedom and the constraints of biology and time, they become linked in a variety of surprising ways.
Posted December 3, 2003
For almost two decades Fanny Savage has been the perfect political wife doing whatever her beloved Will needed. As she turns closer to fifty, Fanny knows she sacrificed her own needs to support whatever Will required of her as a spousal paragon. Will has become a British cabinet minister, but has higher aspirations.................................. As their only child graduates high school, Fanny feels a deep need to achieve self actuation as opposed to spousal actualization. Fanny is tired of Will¿s staff, cronies, and his older sister. She resents her lot in life, but partially blames herself for sheepishly quitting her father¿s wine business to become a full time model spouse. When her father dies, Fanny finds solace in the Italian town that she grew up in and decides the time is now even if it means leaving Will, who she admits she still loves. Since Fanny went to Italy to bring her father home, Will¿s life collapses as his sibling dies and he loses reelection, but what scares him most is Fanny not coming back.................................... Elizabeth Buchan provides a deep character study of a loyal woman finding no satisfaction doing the apparent right thing. Fanny is a fabulous protagonist as she loves her husband, but also begrudges that he and to her credit, she shares culpability for ignoring her dreams to achieve Will¿s aspirations. Though Will¿s fall from grace makes his concerns about Fanny much easier for him to ponder than if he continued to rise, fans will appreciate this delightful update of Ibsen¿s A Doll¿s House with the coming out of this middle aged woman, who simply wants a life of her own............................................... Harriet Klausner
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 29, 2010
This book was not a good one! This is the story of Fanny, a perfect politician's wife. She is tired of being quiet and looking good for political engagements. She wants to get back into her father's wine business. She ends up going back to Italy. This book was dorky- there is no other way to put it. It was very plain. I guess if you have nothing else to read- naaaaaawww...don't read it even then. It really could be anyone's life. This book is nothing special.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 1, 2005
I was not happy overall with this book. It jumps around a lot, going from the past to the present to the past throughout the entire book. It wasn't so much confusing, but more annoying to keep track of every time it jumped around. I kept thinking the book would get better, but only towards the very end was my interest peeked for a short period. As I said, not my cup of tea.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 4, 2004
It's so refreshing to find a good novel about a forty-eight-year-old character. Fanny has evolved into the 'the perfect wife' of a politician and must deal with all that her public role implies...maintaining a perfect appearance and keeping quiet about her thoughts. She must come to grips with bargain she made and decide whether or not it was really worth it. Good beach book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 19, 2012
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Posted July 22, 2010
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