Sailor's Wife

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The Sailor's Wife is set on a remote Greek island in 1975, soon after the end of the Colonel's Junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974. It is a time of uncertainty, poverty, and social and military unrest, the most unlikely time and place for a young American girl to take up residence.

Joyce Perlman is aimless after high school in a Miami suburb. By chance one night she meets a Greek merchant marine named Nikos, with whom she begins a whirlwind courtship leading to their ...

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Overview

The Sailor's Wife is set on a remote Greek island in 1975, soon after the end of the Colonel's Junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974. It is a time of uncertainty, poverty, and social and military unrest, the most unlikely time and place for a young American girl to take up residence.

Joyce Perlman is aimless after high school in a Miami suburb. By chance one night she meets a Greek merchant marine named Nikos, with whom she begins a whirlwind courtship leading to their eventual marriage. Nikos takes Joyce to his homeland only to leave her there, rarely returning, for over two years. Joyce finds herself living the merciless life of a Greek peasant woman, at the command of people steeped in religion, misogyny, superstition and their experience of war.

The Sailor's Wife is a tour de force, a rare glimpse at an ancient culture peopled with sharply drawn and memorable characters, where a modern woman is plucked from her comfortable American nest and set down in a harsh and totally alien world.

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Editorial Reviews

Glamour
They meet in a Florida supermarket: Jewish virgin Joyce and gorgeous Greek sailor Nikos. Soon they elope to the Greek island Ifestia, where women are subservient, work is brutal and—with Nikos at sea—Joyce is a slave to her peasant in-laws. Yet Joyce finds her new life oddly comforting, until a young Englishman appears and reminds her of everything she’s lost. Can Joyce get her groove back? Grab this surprising novel to find out.
Peter Green
This is a bitter, wise and powerful novel. Benedict's anatomy of Greek village life and peasant psychology is penetrating and just... an intensely realized personal tragedy.
Los Angeles Times
U. S. Weekly
A poignant coming-of-age story.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A girl from the suburbs of Miami marries a Greek sailor in the merchant marine and runs away with him to Ifestia, a remote Mediterranean island, in this vivid if overheated novel by Benedict (Bad Angel). The year is 1975, and 20-year-old Joyce has been living the life of a Greek peasant woman for two years, lodged with her husband Nikos's parents while Nikos is at sea. Whereas before she painted her toenails and read romances, now she milks goats and sells vegetables at the village market. Her beautiful but spoiled Nikos is gone for months at a time, returning home to complain that Joyce has still given him no son. Joyce, in turn, works hard during the day, suffering the misogyny and superstitions of her adopted home, writhing in lonely desire at night. Yet she finds the rhythms of island life fulfilling, and her in-laws' harsh love more satisfying than the suburban emptiness she knew before. She endures until she meets Alex Gidding, an Englishman with Greek family, and is reminded of the freedoms women enjoy elsewhere. From their first encounter, the novel accelerates, as Joyce struggles to resist Alex's seductions, remain loyal to her new family and, most importantly, define and accept who she is and what she wants. Benedict's prose is lyrical, though it flirts with clich : Nikos's muscles ripple "like contented animals," and whitewashed houses resemble melted sugar. Most rewarding is Benedict's description of Ifestia, which is rendered as simultaneously familiar and strange, populated by a complex people who speak in epic cadences, are filled with conflicting emotions and are haunted by a bloody national history. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Na ve and romantic, Miami-born Joyce Perlman elopes with Greek sailor Nikos in 1973 only to face the harsh, unromantic realities of life on a primitive Mediterranean island. With the handsome, self-centered Nikos away at sea, Joyce is subjugated by her illiterate, brutal mother-in-law and put to backbreaking work on the family's hardscrabble farm. Desperate for affection and plagued by low self-esteem, she has an affair with Alexander, a visiting Englishman, which sets in motion events that will lead to her expulsion from the close-knit community. Benedict, who has written two previous novels (e.g., Bad Angel) and teaches at Columbia University, presents all this ironically because Joyce's deceptions are so minor compared with those engaged in by all the other characters. Though this book is a gripping, sensual read, its integrity as a love story is sapped by wavering viewpoints and frequent asides on modern Greek history. Still, it is recommended for most libraries.--Jo Manning, Barry Univ., Miami Shores, FL Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
From The Critics
By transporting a nineteen-year-old Floridian in 1975 to the hard life of a Greek island, Benedict has found a potential metaphor for feminist awakening. Joyce is swept away from the supermarket and her staid American Family by a Greek Adonis. Once on island, her husband Nikos resumes his trade as a merchant marine, leaving Joyce for months at a time to farm with her aging in-laws. Despite their harsh ways, these new parents give Joyce a sense of purpose she has never known.Benedict's strength is in her complex characterization of this supporting cast. Demetria reigns matriarchal, superstitious, and bigoted. Her cowed husband is a keen observer of his community who rises to defend his beliefs. Through their biographies, the reader learns the history of modern Greece from the perspective of its people. At times the book is more romance novel than political and social commentary. Joyce's lovers are all ravishing, and their intimate scenes are ironically the stuff of conventional supermarket page-turners. Multiple betrayal moves the plot. In an attempt to characterize Joyce's originally simple mind, the writing suffers from an overabundance of inaccurate simile: an airplane as a metal tube, a family looking "dull and gray like a washed out photograph text next to a shock of bright balloons," a former life "brushed away like sand from a knee." To it's credit, the book describes life on this imaginary island with sinuous detail. The market reeks of fragrant vegetables, garlic, and butchered meats; the air in the bakeshop is floured; the rock ledges grate on Joyce's feet. The reader feels cramped in the family's home, stuffed into church, and free, by contrast, on a mountainside. Joyce's eventual appreciation for her old blue jeans and her desire to "look a man in the eye" are ultimately believable in this oppressive climate. As an outsider on the inside, Joyce comes to understand the challenges of feminine life: "Not one of them had ever had a choice about what to do with her life, about how to spend each hour of the day. Not one of them was free even now to walk the streets by herself, to hop a bike and go somewhere she had never seen. Joyce had grown up with freedom, but what had she done with it?" The symbolic conclusion of the book may be too open-ended for those who have read it for its romantic value, but ultimately this ending may bring the reader around to Benedict's metaphor.
Los Angeles Times
This is a bitter, wise and powerful novel. Benedict's anatomy of Greek village life and peasant psychology is penetrating and just... an intensely realized personal tragedy. --Peter Green, Los Angeles Times, July 22, 2001.
Peter Bricklebank
Helen Benedict's understanding of families, and the rich historical subtext that suffuses the lives of Greek peasants, make for an intelligent look at belonging, duty and independence.
New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A schematic third novel from Benedict (A World Like This, 1990; Bad Angel, 1995) uses a young woman's learning curve in love and life as a clumsy forum for a debate on freedom versus duty.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781581950243
  • Publisher: Steerforth Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/2000
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.81 (w) x 8.58 (h) x 1.09 (d)

Read an Excerpt

The dust jacket of Helen Benedict's novel The Sailor's Wife could well be mistaken for an official Greek tourism poster. Against a cloudless sky of dazzling blue rises a solitary Doric column, doing its worn best to look symbolic. In front of it stands an elegant blond girl with a long ponytail, full red lips slightly parted, gaze fixed on something or someone unseen, one exquisitely manicured and scarlet-nailed hand raised to shade her eyes against the sun. At least, one assumes she's standing: The scene is chopped off abruptly just above her chin, so that there's no actual evidence of either girl or column being on solid ground, or even of solid ground existing. If this kind of summer fantasy is what you're looking for, don't open the book. There may have been jackets that except for being set in Greece more totally misrepresented a text, but in more than half a century of reviewing, I don't recall one. Joyce Perlman is a nice, bored, yearning Miami teenager who has the great misfortune to encounter, in a supermarket, a young white-uniformed Greek sailor called Nikos. Nikos has black curly hair, amber eyes, an inflated male ego and staggering good looks. The contrast with Joyce's dull, overweight, TV-fixated family is seductively heady. She speaks no Greek. He speaks only minimal English. They communicate nicely to begin with--via their bodies, but in no other way. So they elope, get married and return to Nikos' island (a not even perfunctorily disguised Lemnos, here renamed Ifestia), where reality, in the shape of village life and tough peasant in-laws, kicks in with a vengeance. The date is 1975. Had Benedict set it much later, social reforms (abolition of dowries, pensions for women), plus the impact of everything from TV and ATMs to labor-saving kitchen gadgets, would have somewhat blunted the force of her tough message.

This is the side of old-style Greek rural poverty that tourists never see, delineated with merciless accuracy yet also with a surprising degree of compassion. Having lived in a Greek village for several years during the '60s (on Lesbos, the big neighboring island that is featured in Benedict's narrative), I can vouch for the fundamental truth of the picture she presents: the harsh, unending, physical labor, the intolerance and bigotry, the poisonous gossiping, the all-pervasive male chauvinism--and the flinty matriarchal viragoes that such a system inevitably creates. Poor Joyce does her best: better, in fact, than many would achieve in her place, not least since Nikos is away at sea for months at a time. She works till she drops for her demanding mother-in-law, Dimitra. Her fingernails become dirty and broken. She gives up jeans and short-sleeved shirts. She learns to speak Greek. She attends Orthodox church services, too scared to admit Christianity isn't in fact her religion.

A lesser novelist than Benedict, and one lacking her anthropological background, might have left it at that, as an unrelieved horror story of the clash between two hopelessly incompatible cultures. But what we are also made to see is the way Joyce comes to embrace her life, how she very nearly manages to make a go of it, how Dimitra's toughness hides inarticulate love, how Joyce and her father-in-law, Petros, work toward a real understanding. But the odds are hopelessly against her. Nikos, inevitably, becomes petulant and demanding. Joyce, equally inevitably, is secretly, and reluctantly, driven into the arms of Anglo-Greek Alex, a summer visitor from London. Dimitra's harsh possessive love for her daughter-in-law is turned to screaming abusive rejection when she learns that Joyce is in fact Jewish. Ironically, though, it's Dimitra's love, and what that love drives her to do (a twist of the plot not to be revealed), that finally sends Joyce back to America.

This is a bitter, wise and powerful novel. Benedict's anatomy of Greek village life and peasant psychology is penetrating and just. Only once or twice, to further her plot line, does she allow a manifest impossibility as when, to find Joyce a refuge when her Jewishness gets her thrown out of the house, she provides Petros with a kindly widowed mistress, of some 30 years standing, in the same village. Dimitra, we gather, doesn't know about her. Excuse me? In my village she'd have known in five minutes, never mind 30 years. The same applies to Joyce and Alex's surprisingly indiscreet carry-on.

But it's a small price to pay for so intensely realized a personal tragedy. Joyce ends up, with dreadful inevitability, alienated forever from both her families. On her last night in Athens she dreams of a Florida supermarket: Not one thing there for Dimitra, she reflects. But what is there for Joyce where she's returning?

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 18, 2002

    A quick, enjoyable read

    I liked this more than I was expecting to and finished it in a weekend. It certainly kept my interest- the setting, characters, and relationships are unique and the love triangle was beliveable. I was a little disappointed at the ending (only because I felt I saw it coming), but... this is a fun, fast book that is worth the time.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 31, 2000

    A smart, sexy coming of age story

    The Sailor1s Wife is the story of an American girl who goes to live on a remote island in the Aegean with the parents of a Greek sailor who she met at a Florida supermarket. At first the girl, Joyce, and the sailor, Nikos, can hardly speak to one another except through the language of their mutual desire, but that is enough for them to fall deeply in love and to marry. Once he has brought her home to live with his peasant parents, Joyce soon learns enough Greek to understand that Nikos is not at all the man she though he was when she married him. Continuing his career in the merchant marine, he is hardly ever home, and when he does visit, he treats her as little more than a servant. Joyce is determined to stick out the marriage, however, because she has grown so attached to Nikos1s parents, and because she has come to feel that their almost Biblical existence is vastly more meaningful than her previous life in suburban Miami. Her resolve is sorely tested when she is rescued from an assault by a couple of Greek soldiers by Alex, a handsome, young, British intellectual visiting his Greek family. One of the great strengths of Helen Benedict1s novel is that she makes us understand the difficulty of Joyce1s dilemma by bringing island culture vividly to life, and by showing how all of the major characters were shaped by the ravages of war and dictatorship. This is a sexy, sun-filled, fast-moving coming of age story, but one that never presents Joyce1s personal struggles in isolation form the hard history that, in part, determines them. I read this book in one sitting, sometimes pacing the room to reduce the tension of suspense, other times sinking deep into my chair to savor the satisfactions of this deeply passionate and sexually adventurous young woman, and still other times shaking my head at the sad and even terrifying situations Joyce was thrust into by her simple need to be fully herself. This is a smart, sexy, beautifully written tale that has permanently changed the way I see both modern and traditional cultures. I cannot recommend it more highly.

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