The Good Husband

( 1 )

Overview

"[A] BRILLIANT, WITTY AND PROVOCATIVE NEW NOVEL."
--San Francisco Chronicle
As a young woman, the brilliant and eternally curious Magda Danvers took the academic world by storm. Then, to everyone's surprise, she married Francis Lake, a mild, midwestern seminarian, who has devoted his life to taking care of his charismatic wife. Now, Magda's grave illness puts their marriage to its ultimate test.
Though facing her "Final Examination," Magda continues to arouse her visitors with ...
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Overview

"[A] BRILLIANT, WITTY AND PROVOCATIVE NEW NOVEL."
--San Francisco Chronicle
As a young woman, the brilliant and eternally curious Magda Danvers took the academic world by storm. Then, to everyone's surprise, she married Francis Lake, a mild, midwestern seminarian, who has devoted his life to taking care of his charismatic wife. Now, Magda's grave illness puts their marriage to its ultimate test.
Though facing her "Final Examination," Magda continues to arouse her visitors with compelling thoughts and questions. Into this provocative atmosphere comes Alice Henry, retreating from family tragedy and a crumbling marriage to novelist Hugo Henry. But is it the incandescence of Magda's ideas that draws Alice, or the secret of "the good marriage" that she is desperate to discover? For Alice, Hugo, Francis, and Magda will learn that the most ideal relationship--even a perfect marriage--doesn't come without a price....
"COMPELLING WRITING...REMARKABLY SKILLFUL...Gail Godwin shows herself to be at the height of her considerable power as a storyteller and a writer."
--The Boston Globe
"ONE OF HER FINEST BOOKS...It is not only a well-written story, but a mature and wise one, affirmative in its vision of love, unblinking in its portrayal of tragic loss."
--Atlanta Journal & Constitution
"FASCINATING...[A] BIG SUMPTUOUS BOOK...HER BEST NOVEL."
--Entertainment Weekly
"A BRILLIANTLY CRAFTED NOVEL, full of fun and mischief and resonating with wisdom and moral depth."
--New Woman
A Featured Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club

The author of A Mother and Two Daughters creates a superbly drawn portrait of two marriages and four unforgettable characters in the throes of life and death. Magda Danvers is the magnificent central character who, from her death bed, tranforms and influences all those around her--until her incandescent last days, when the secret of Magda's "good marriage" is revealed for the first and last time.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Two oddly mismatched married couples are the focus of Godwin's Father Melancholy's Daughter, LJ 2/1/91 powerful new novel. Magda Danvers, once a brilliant literary theorist, now a dying professor at a small private college, is married to ``good husband'' and former seminarian Francis Lake. ``Frannie'' devotedly attends to his beloved, impatient older wife while she is dying. Watching this with wonder is Alice, young wife of famous novelist Hugo, who is also teaching at the college. After a botched home birth, Alice and Hugo's baby has died, and their grief has sent the marriage into a frosty decline. Godwin's intensely drawn characters are vividly portrayed during the most intimate times of love, marriage, and death. The result is a winner. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/ 1/94.]-Ann H. Fisher, Radford P.L., Va.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345396457
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/3/1995
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 556,998
  • Product dimensions: 5.55 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.98 (d)

Meet the Author

Gail Godwin
Gail Godwin

Gail Godwin is a three-time National Book Award nominee and the bestselling author of many critically acclaimed novels, including A Mother and Two Daughters, Violet Clay, Father Melancholy’s Daughter, Evensong, The Good Husband, and Evenings at Five. She is also the author of The Making of a Writer: Journals, 1961—1963, the first of two volumes, edited by Rob Neufeld. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant for both fiction and libretto writing, and the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Magda Danvers, the week before Christmas, returned home from surgery at Catskill Hospital and telephoned to her chairman she would not be meeting her classes for second semester. “It seems the Great Uncouth has taken up permanent residence inside me,” she informed him. “Well, I always was a good student; now I must see what I can learn from my final teacher.”
She had many visitors. This was during the first stage of her dying, when she still looked and spoke like her old self. Ray Johnson, the chairman of the English Department at Aurelia College, lost no time in disseminating her audacious remark around campus, and people wanted to go over to the restored Colonial farmhouse their prized teacher shared with her husband, Francis Lake, a devoted, self-effacing man much younger than herself, and see for themselves how Magda would go about learning from her final teacher.
During the remainder of deep winter, Magda held court in her snug upstairs study, crammed with all her books, surrounded by her beloved Blake reproductions. She reclined on the worn leather sofa in a baggy sweater and old tweed trousers and red velvet carpet slippers, an afghan spread over her, her famous mahogany hair floating loose around her shoulders rather than pinned up in its usual fat twist. A fire crackled in the small fireplace, tended by her husband. At regular intervals, Francis would poke his head around the door and ask, “How is the fire doing, my love?” If she replied, “We could use a couple more logs, Frannie,” that was their signal that she was enjoying her visitor, and Francis would slip in unobtrusively and rekindle the fire. If she said, “I think we’ll just let it burn itself out,” that meant the visitor was not contributing enough to the precious time she had left in this world, and Francis was to return in three to five minutes and announce it was time for one of Magda’s obligatory reset periods in the bedroom at the other end of the hall.
Her students came. Suzanne Riley brought Magda her map of the Mountain of Purgatory, Magda’s last class assignment before entering the hospital. “I want you to have the original of this, Professor Danvers. I mad a color photocopy to hand in to Professor Ramirez-Suarez. He’ll be taking your classes second semester while…until…” The girl looked away miserably.
“It’s okay, Suzanne,” Magda soothed her. “We both know what you mean. But this is a gorgeous map. All the detail you put into these figures. I didn’t even assign figures.”
“Well, I am an arts major. At first I dreaded your assignment. You know. All that extra work. I mean, if you’re going to draw a really good map, you have to read the stuff really carefully so you’ll know what to draw. But then it was weird. I got really involved. I always know when I get involved while I’m drawing because my mouth begins to water. If that doesn’t sound too gross.”
Francis Lake poked his head briefly around the door. “How’s the fire doing, Magda?”
“Oh, pile on some more logs,” replied Magda cheerfully. “But first, come and look at this splendid drawing. I want to get it framed as soon as possible and hang it up with my Blakes so I can look at it in the time I’ve got left. A good map of Purgatory fits in perfectly with my present studies. Let’s see, where am I on the Mountain? I’d like to be as far up as the Gluttonous cornice–the warm sins are better–but I’m probably still down in lower Purgatory with the cold and proud. Where do you think I am, Frannie?”
“You’re certainly not cold and proud,” said Francis. “It is a splendid map. I’ll take it down to the framers first thing in the morning, my love.”

First, my grandmother dies, and then my girlfriend breaks up with me, and now I’m losing my favorite teacher,” blubbered the young man, clutching at Magda’s afghan. “This has been the worst year of my life. I’m like, wondering what’s the point of living.” He covered his face with a corner of the afghan, managing to tug it off Magda’s knees in the process, and began to sob in earnest.
Francis Lake’s slim figure materialized at once in the doorway. “How’s the fire doing, Magda?”
“Oh, dying, like everything else in here,” said Magda. “Could you give Rick a Kleenex so he can blow his nose before he goes?”

Ramirez-Suarez paid courtly visits. “We miss you, bright lady. My task this semester is to make Paradise as interesting as Hell. You would have done a much better job with your marvelous viveza. I have been entertaining them a little by reading passages aloud in the Italian. Oh, and I have had to supplement the text with my own notes, which I pass out to them each session. Magda, these young people have no receptivity to allusions. They don’t know who Achilles was. They can’t name the seven deadly sins. Their biblical references are almost nil. Would you believe it, many of them weren’t familiar with the Sermon on the Mount.”
Her husband, smiling, stuck his head in the door.
“Ah, Francis, I have stayed too long and tired out our dearest Magda,” said the dapper little professor, leaping out of his chair.
“I’ll be tireder if you leave me, Tony. Frannie just came to heap more logs on our fire. And then you’ll have some tea with us. After you phoned this morning, Francis went out and bought those lemon squares you like.”
“Oh, dear lady–“
“Sit down, Tony. Haven’t you heard that invalids are always supposed to have their way? You know, I think we ought to propose a new course at Aurelia. A required course, and not just for the liberal-arts majors, either. The catalog description would describe it as ‘The very minimum of people, places, and things you’d better at lest have heard of if you plan to pass yourself off as an educated person.’ And we’d stuff it into them any old-fashioned way we could: forced memorization, pop quizzes, all the dirty old tricks. A two-semester course. We could call it Allusions One, and Allusions Two…”

The chairman of English, Ray Johnson, dropped by regularly, his shining eyes behind the round glasses taking in the minute details of her decline so he could report back to others.
“Tony Ramirez-Suarez said he found you in excellent spirits the other day. You two were cooking up some amusing new course?”
“Allusions One and Two,” said Magda. “ ‘Would you rather drink from the waters of Lethe, the Pierian Spring, or Parnassus’s Waters? Why?’ ‘What did Circe do to men?’ ‘Why did Diana keep to the woods?’ ‘List the seven deadly sins and the four cardinal virtues and the four levels of meaning.’ Just the basic stuff you need if you’re going to read a poem rather than a balance sheet.”
The chairman chuckled knowledgeably. Magda’s mind definitely hadn’t succumbed to the waters of Lethe yet, but her flamboyant dark red hair, he hadn’t failed to notice, now sprouted an untidy inch or more of dead white at the parting. This shocking sign of the arrogant Magda’s deterioration somewhat tempered his resentment of her for baiting him. He could get three out of four levels of meaning, but what the devil were the four cardinal virtues? Parnassus’s waters rang a faint bell from somewhere in his academic past, but what the hell did you get from drinking them?
He changed the subject. “Poor Alice and Hugo Henry. They lost their baby.”
“Oh, no! How?”
“He got tangled in the cord and the oxygen was cut off. Apparently it was going fine until the last minute, Hugo said. He seemed quite shaken when he came to school today. It was a home birth. That Dr. Romero all the mothers love and all the obstetricians hate.”
“Oh, poor lovely Alice. And she was so happy when I was with her at your party in early December. Oh, God, there we both were, laughing and talking together, her with her healthy baby inside her and me with my undiagnosed cancer inside me, both of us oblivious to our fates…”
Francis Lake appeared in the doorway.
“Francis, Alice and Hugo lost their baby.”
“When?”
“Last Thursday,” said Ray Johnson. “But we didn’t know about it until Monday, when Hugo came to meet his classes.” The chairman then repeated the sad details to Magda’s husband.
“Oh, I’m so upset of them,” wailed Magda, clutching at her hair. “Francis, I must write them a letter immediately.”
“After you’ve rested,” Francis told her sternly. “Ray, you won’t mind waiting here until I get Magda settled in her room. Then we’ll go downstairs and have some tea. If you can spare the time.”
“Oh, I can always spare the time for one of your famous teas,” said the chairman, laughing.

January’s calendar flipped over into February, then on into March. Gresham P. Harris, president of Aurelia College, mounted the stairs behind Magda’s husband.
“Last time, we went thataway,” remarked the president lightly when Francis, at the top of the stairs, turned right, not left toward Magda’s study with the nice fire burning.
“Magda is staying in bed today.”
“Oh, I see,” said the president, preparing himself not to show anything as he followed Francis Lake toward a room at the other end of the hallway.
“Magda, Magda,” was all he said, when he saw his brilliant star lying gray and docile under the blanket in the big four-poster bed. She was small, she who three months ago would have been described by her aficionados as “statuesque,” and by her enemies (for of course she had those, too) as overweight. Since his last visit to the house, she must have dropped twenty or thirty pounds. And the wiry white stuff bursting out of her scalp belonged to someone else. Some wild old woman…or man. The glossy dark red hair that had been distinctly hers, though everyone knew it came out of a package, still lay in straggles of its former glory on either side of her pillows. It had the look of having just been brushed out for his visit, probably by Francis Lake.
The president sat down in the chair Magda’s husband placed for him on the right side of the bed. Left alone in the room by Francis in the direct range of the dying woman’s penetrating gaze, he gained a few moments of respite by plucking at the knees of his perfectly creased trousers and surveying the neat lines of his black-stockinged ankles and thep9olished black wing-tip shoes below. He was a well-groomed, fastidious man who appeared younger than his fifty-eight years. He and Magda were the same age. Years ago, they had been graduate students at the same time in Ann Arbor, but they hadn’t known each other. These days he also gave his smooth, dark hair a little help from a package. College presidents were expected to look younger now.
I, too, could be struck by cancer and waste away in a few months, the president suddenly realized. His gaze meeting Magda’s snapping dark eyes at last, he had the distinct feeling that she had read his thought word for word. It made it easier for him to speak naturally.
“Well, Magda, this distresses me. I guess I was hoping for a miracle. Now that this Gulf War is over, I’ve rescheduled our Twenty-fifth Anniversary Alumni Cruise around the British Isles for August–our first cruise ever, to honor Aurelia’s first graduating class of sixty-six. I had my heart set on your being the star lecturer. We thought we’d use a ‘literary heritage’ theme.”
“I’d be honored, Gresh, if I weren’t already booked for another journey.”
“Are you in much pain?”
“It comes and goes. It has a life of its own. I’ve named it the Gargoyle. Every day its grin stretches wider at my expense, but of course from its point of view, I’m the impediment. I’m the thing in the way of its development and growth.” She laughed weakly. “If it had a language, I wonder what it would name me.” Then she grimaced in obvious pain.
That was the sort of remark that made her the popular and compelling teacher she was. He wished he had more like her. She hadn’t come cheaply, of course, when he snared her five years ago. Better be glad she hadn’t followed up on the meteoric early brilliance of that first book, or he’d never have captured her for Aurelia. There’d been chapters of its successor, spread out between long–too long–intervals in the quarterlies, but not nearly enough to show for twenty-five years of scholarship from the precocious author of The Book of Hell: An Introduction to Visionary Mode. He still recalled how flattened with envy he had been, all those years ago back in Ann arbor, when her outrageous young triumph had flashed across the academic firmament. His own age and already published. And from the same university. (Though at least he had been in a different field: he was doing history and poly sci.) Not only published, but her picture in Time magazine. “The Dark Lady of Visions.” Her dissertation published before it had even been defended! Though later he’d heard that there had been some backlash by resentful professors that had delayed her degree for several years.
Her eyes were closed; she was focused on her pain. Her Gargoyle. An ovarian cancer that had gone too far. According to Ray Johnson, that champion disseminator of other people’s business, the word was that she’d flat out rejected chemo when that new Indian doctor Rainiwari, who could be somewhat blunt, told her what her chances were…or, rather, weren’t. “In that case,” she’d told Rainiwari, “I’d prefer to spend the time I have left studying for my Final Exam, rather than studying my disease.”
The president leaned forward and steadied himself with a hand on either of his charcoal-pinstriped knees. His first impulse had been to reach out and lay one of his hands on top of hers, which were clenched upon the blanket. But at present it seemed like an intrusion. The skin of Magda’s hands had acquired a glossy, yellowish sheen; whereas her formerly high-colored face had been dulled to a powdery gray pallor. These mysterious details of an individual’s dying: what would his own details be like?
He put his face nearer to hers. “We want to set up an endowed chair in your name,” he murmured, moved as much by the sorrowful huskiness that had crept appropriately into his announcement as by the magnanimous gift he offered.
The eyes opened. Dark, receptive pools, though ambushed by pain. Then the cracked corners of her mouth tipped upward in an irrepressible smirk. Why, she was expecting it, thought the president.
“The Magda Danvers Chair of Visionary Studies, we were thinking of calling it,” he continued. “I was talking to Ray Johnson. If we use the word ‘studies’ rather than ‘literature,’ we include the visual arts, which you’ve been doing all along anyway. It would leave things wide open for exciting linkups between departments. Our art chairman Sonia Wynkoop is having her Roman sabbatical, as you know, but I’m sure she’ll be amenable to the idea when she returns. Maybe we’d include music and science as well. Colleges that stay in business these days are getting away from the old departmental isolation. Everyone’s had their fill of the specialists, each keeping his acquirements to himself behind arcane jargons. The trend now is back to shared knowledge and cooperation. The Rounded Person.”
“A trend whose time has come none too soon, wouldn’t you say?” responded the smiling Magda, with a flash of that mocking insolence that many people, including President Gresham P. Harris, found disconcerting.
He rose, plucking at his trousers again to adjust their fall. “Well, you must rest. Keep up your strength for…for…” It was a rare occasion when he found himself at a loss for words.
“For my Final Exam,” Magda helped him out. She reached up for his hand with one of her waxy, yellow ones. The grip was weak but sure. The hand was dry, and hotter than he would have expected. “Thank you, Gresh. You’ve made me very happy about the chair.” She sounded like a mischievous little girl who’d gotten exactly what she wanted and was trying to be demure. But she closed her eyes again before he could attempt to read them.
Though he had semicommitments elsewhere, President Harris let himself be talked into having tea downstairs with Francis Lake because the poor guy looked exhausted and lonely and had obviously gone to trouble preparing it. They sat facing each other at a small table in a cozy corner of the living room where the afternoon sun played attractively on the fronds of healthy hanging plants in the deep-set windows and brought out the various patinas in the woods of some rather good Early American furniture. Boy, wouldn’t his wife Leora like to get her hands on that secretary.
Francis served him with attentive diffidence, making a little ceremony with all his paraphernalia: the strainer and the sugar tongs, the little silver pitcher of hot water. A soft-spoken, tranquil fellow, Magda Danver’s husband. Twelve years younger than she. The scuttlebutt was that, back in the sixties, Magda had stolen him out of a Catholic seminary somewhere up in the north of Michigan where she’d gone to lecture. He still had somewhat of the look of an aging choirboy. Now, that must have been an unusual courtship. But they seemed very contented in their domestic arrangement. Enviably so, his wife Leora believed. Once, at a faculty dinner party hosted by the president and his wife, Magda had made pointed innuendoes concerning their successful bed life.
“The forsythia will be out any day now,” said Francis Lake, slicing a cake with fruit on top and transferring a generous wedge to the president’s plate. “I saw some buds this morning that were about to pop.” He helped himself to a slice. “I hope she makes it to the lilac. Magda’s favorite is that deep purple lilac.” He motioned through the window at a very old lilac, whose convoluted branches were outlined in the liquid-yellow light of early spring.
“Let’s hope she does,” concurred the president. After a suitable pause, he added, “It’s going to be a big loss for all of us.”
“Yes,” replied Francis equably, still gazing out at the old lilac. What on earth will he do with himself when she’s gone? wondered the president. Ray Johnson said that Francis Lake had never even held a job. He’d been Magda’s house husband, just as some women (though that model was getting phased out rapidly now) were never anything but housewives. Francis would have her pension, of course. Which would have been considerably more if she’d died at sixty-five rather than fifty-eight.
Whereas we will save, thought the president. But, damn it, whom could he get for the Twenty-fifth Anniversary Cruise? Had to be someone of star quality. Of course there was Hugo Henry, Aurelia’s current novelist-in-residence, much more widely known than Magda, though not nearly as warm and engaging a speaker, his trusty spy Ray Johnson reported. Hugo was truculent; short men often were. Nevertheless, he could do the job. His reputation would carry him. And people like novelists, their creative aura. For the requisite bit of scholarly heft the president could get Stanforth from Columbia. Stanforth owed him several favors. But Hugo and his wife had had the disaster with their baby back in January and Alice hadn’t been seen outside the house since. It was probably still too soon to decently ask Hugo to do the cruise.
But the publicity over Magda’s endowed chair would be coming at a good time, for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first graduating class.
“I wonder, Francis, would you happen to have a recent photo of Magda in profile? We’ve got plans under way to raise some big bucks for a Magda Danvers chair, and I want to have her tintype on the letterhead we send out.”
“I was looking at some snapshots today. Does it have to be a profile?”
“Preferable. Profiles come out better on a tintype.”
Already Francis had sprung up from his chair and was rustling through a drawer of the secretary. He returned with a bulging envelope of snapshots, which he emptied out on the windowsill and began to sort through energetically, passing his selections across the table with accompanying commentaries. “That was in Paris, the summer Magda was doing her symbols of apotheosis research. It’s not very recent, but I think it’s still extremely like her, don’t you? Oh, no, here’s one. This is more recent, just before we came to Aurelia. Magda and I were accompanying the junior girls at Merrivale College on their semester abroad. I took this myself in Florence. You get a really good profile of Magda, though it’s slightly blurred, because she moved just as I clicked the shutter. She was pointing out to the girls where Dante lived…”
At this rate, I’ll be here all night, thought the president. But he took another sip of tea, surreptitiously glanced at his wristwatch, and let Francis go on a bit longer. The poor man’s face was animated with excitement and happiness. In his trip down memory lane (that old photo “still extremely like her”!), he had briefly forgotten the true state of affairs on the floor above.

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Interviews & Essays

Jennifer Morgan Gray is an editor and writer who lives in New
York City.
Jennifer Morgan Gray: The title The Good Husband has many
meanings, both literal and figurative. What did you hope to evoke
in choosing this title? Were there any others you considered and
then abandoned?
Gail Godwin: This is one of the very few novels that I've written
where the title came with the idea. I meant the title to be ambiguous,
so that the reader would have to start asking, "So just what is
a good husband? Who is the good husband in this book? Could it
be both of them, or neither?" It was chosen exactly at the time that
I thought of creating these four people.
JMG: It's said that authors often write what they know. As an acclaimed
author with extensive experience in the world of academia,
did you find it liberating to set a novel in a familiar college setting?
Did you deliberately insert elements of satire into the situation and
the various characters--for example, President Harris and his wife,
Leora?
GG: I wrote one other academic novel, The Odd Woman. That was
set in one point of view, that of a particular young woman professor,
and it was a much more naturalistic treatment of a university.
Now, this one has a bit of a satire to it, this college, Aurelia. It's a
college where fundraising has gotten the upper hand, and it's the
type of college where I thought it would be possible for these types
to meet. Hugo Henry gets invited at the last minute; Magda Danvers,
if she had become the scholar she started out to be, would be
somewhere else, like maybe Columbia.
When I imagined what the president of the collegewould be
like, it did creep over into satire, because fund-raisers do have a
way of forgetting the interior and the unseen. But the last we see of
President Harris, he's flying toward this wretched literary tour with
this bore of a woman he wants to get money out of. He has this serious
moment, when he thinks of what he's really interested in,
how things going in and out of fashion could ruin whole industries
and transform cultural patterns. He would rather have written a
book on American cultural patterns instead of spending his life
raising money to satisfy other people's egos.
JMG: In the dedication of The Good Husband, you remark,
"Francis, Alice, Hugo, and Magda are, I must admit, four stimulating
but often puzzling parts of my own character." Which elements
of these characters most perplexed you while you were in the
process of writing this book? Which aspects of your own personality
did you insert into each character? Were there characteristics of
each character that you wished to emulate and to make your own?
GG: A wonderful question. On page 353, Hugo is talking to his
son's lover and is talking about how writers choose or get chosen
by different subjects. And he says to him, "There's something
about this story that addresses longings and woes of my own." At
the time I was writing this book, my longings and woes were attracted
to the subject of death. I had never seen anyone die until
right before I wrote this book; my father committed suicide and my
mother died in an auto crash. Actually, before I wrote this book, I
was working on another one, and then I started visiting this dying
professor. He had some of the characteristics I gave Magda--the
sense of humor, the acceptance of using his time to die as a time to
evaluate his life.
Then I had to make up some more characters! I decided that I
wanted to make the dying person a woman because I had read an
article by the Jungian analyst June Singer. She said when you get
too goal-oriented--and it's ruining your life--just stop for a minute
and imagine that you're dying. You're already on your deathbed--
you can't pay the bills, you can't go out shopping, somebody else
has to take over. All you can do is just lie there and think of what it
all meant.
That was the scene that attracted me most, but I couldn't just
have a woman lying there by herself in bed. So out of that came all
these other creatures. Then I wanted to give her a husband who
would seem to serve all of her needs, and yet there's another side to
that: Perhaps by serving all of her needs so well, he kept her from
taking any more flight. When I got into his personality, I began to
love him because he really is one of those human beings who gets
satisfaction out of serving the needs that he sees around him--I
must say that there's very little of that in me! And yet I started seeing
how that could be a very relaxing and fulfilling thing: washing
the windows of a monastery or of your own house, making a meal
for someone, keeping things clean. The dark side of that is that a
person like that often does not want to go into his or her own interior,
because it's too scary. So I matched them up well, because they
can complement each other and they can goad each other.
Hugo Henry is perhaps the most me. Yes, he's the most me.
Any scene that you see him in, I've been there: ruining a vacation in
Switzerland because my books weren't in the English bookstore,
and always worrying about my literary status. But, thank goodness,
having written Hugo and made fun of him a little helped me
distance myself from that aspect.
And then finally, the woman Hugo marries, Alice. By being so
damaged by what's happened to her, and so passive, Alice also is a
clean, soft sheet for things to make impressions on. Her happiest
moments in the book seem to come from visiting a woman who is
near the end of her life and who has the luxury to figure out what
she was, and what's important in life. Magda, of course, comes to
the conclusion that she has been an arouser rather than a fulfiller.
What is most important, now, is that she order her loves and tally
her accounts.
Of course, no one wants to identify with someone who is going
to die, but Magda's the one who casts the light so everyone can ask
the questions they need to ask in difficult times of transformation.
JMG: How did you manage to integrate humor into what could
have been a bleakly depressing novel? Were those moments of levity
what guided you through writing a book that's consumed with
death?
GG: She's wickedly irreverent. She wants to shine light on things
even if it's unflattering. I just finished another short novel that will
be out in April and that's all about death. It's called Evenings at
Five, and some of the early readers and critics have said that it's
funny as well as being sad. But if you're true to what your characters
really think and feel and say and do, humor is going to come
into it because that's the way life is; that's the way death gets ab-
sorbed by the living. In A Southern Family, a long book of mine
that also has death in it, they're all going to the funeral and they get
into the limousine and realize that one of them has stepped into
some dog doo of the dead boy's dog. It rides to the funeral with
them. Everyone is so upset--but at the same time, it's funny.
In The Good Husband, I was true to Magda. I also let her
say awful things about the people who came to visit and make
up provocative letters to adoring researchers whom she can never
answer--because she can't read or write anymore.
JMG: The narrative shifts points of view throughout the book, and
the story unfolds from several different perspectives. Why did you
decide to craft the book in this manner? In your opinion, is there
one true narrator, someone you viewed as the true eyes and ears of
the story?
GG: Absolutely not. I wanted to go into all of them and to see how
far into them I could get. Then I started going into more than the
four--I went into the president, into his wife, into the teacher that
takes over Magda's class. From the beginning, I wanted to have all
the viewpoints. A Southern Family has lots and lots of viewpoints,
but most of my books have been with a first-person narrator or
third person, but staying in one consciousness.
JMG: It must be interesting for you, then, to see the story through
so many different mind-sets.
GG: It is. You think differently. They have different dreams. And
they see the same event from different perspectives.
JMG: The Good Husband doesn't seem to support the concept of
one perfect soul mate for each individual. In fact, according to
Magda, "Mates are not always matches, and matches are not always
mates." How did this thought guide you as you were writing?
Was it something you considered beforehand, or did it pop up
while you were writing?
GG: It popped up when Magda said that. When she's lecturing
at the seminary about Blake and his wife, she's explaining about
how they were mated well but they were not matches. Mrs. Blake
couldn't even read and could not follow William into his imagination.
When Magda said that, I realized that I had something: Hugo
and Alice are certainly matched, but, reading their scenes closely,
neither of them was ever passionate about the other. They admired
each other; they could talk about whatever needed to be talked
about. She served his needs, and he served hers; she wanted a child,
and he wanted an editor. He admired her calmness and her loveliness,
while she admired his work. So they were matched, but the
passion was left out.
JMG: Do you feel that any of these couples resolved the disconnect
of being mated but not matched?
GG: I don't think that either of the couples became mated and
matched. When Francis threw Magda's ashes overboard, he said,
"Now I'm going to do what I want." So he was, in a sense, declaring
his freedom. Although many people have written me and asked
why they didn't get together, Alice and Francis were certainly not
destined for each other. They were there for each other to help
them get on to the next stage of their lives--whatever that will be.
JMG: Sort of transitional, in a way.
GG: Yes. There are two mates in this book, and they're married.
The mates are married, and the matches are married. And then
there's a lot of crossing: Alice feels she could be mated with Francis
because she's attracted to him and passionate about him, and Hugo
admires Magda's fire. There's this dynamic here, like an X. In a
way, they're like one whole person.
JMG: Do Magda and Francis have the secrets to what makes a marriage
happy and successful? Does their unconventional arrangement
work for or against them?
GG: It certainly is a satisfactory, cozy, successful marriage. The question
is, what did it do to the potential of each of them? If they hadn't
met each other, would Francis have become a perfect priest? Would
Magda have become a literary star? And is that so important?
Maybe they are enviable because they were comfortable and
they enjoyed their lives together, even though she complained that
he was obtuse and would never go in for self-examination. I think
their marriage was satisfying. She loved traveling with him. As she
writes to the woman who wants to interview her--the letter she
never writes, because she's unable to do so--she loved seeing him
go out in the morning when they were traveling, knowing that he
just could be serendipitous all day. She writes that he looks like
a cross between her gigolo and her archangel. I think sensually--
all the things about the senses, eating together, traveling together,
sleeping together--it was a very good marriage, and mysterious in
that sense to both of them.
JMG: The most well-adjusted couple in the book is a single-sex
one. How is Laurence and Cal's relationship a more traditional
"marriage" than the other pairs in this book, in particular Magda
and Francis? Did you deliberately make the most unconventional
(by society's standards) partnership the most functional one? Why?
GG: I always work from inside my characters, and I try not to plan
ahead for them. Hugo faces the worst thing he could imagine, that
his son is gay. This becomes a point of growth for him, because the
only way that he can start facing it is to pretend he's writing a story.
And then I had to create these people--Cal, and then Laurence, and
figure out why they would have been attracted to one another. They
have this thing in common: They are providers--there are some in
the world. They both want to provide, on a large scale, to people,
especially children, who have had a hard time. They complement
each other in that Cal is desperately energetic because he's found
something he cares about, and the older man is more thoughtful
and laid-back and has lots of money. As far as the fact that their
marriage might be more well-adjusted--remember: They've just
gotten together!
JMG: They haven't weathered the storms yet.
GG: I'm sure that if we imagine them ahead, there will come a time
when they have arguments about building one of the shelters. Or
Cal is going to get annoyed with some habit that Laurence has--
who knows what. They're a new couple. I think if they survive,
they'll do a great deal of good in the world.
JMG: In The Odd Woman, one of your previous books, a charac-ter
said that "teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths
theater." How is this exhibited in Magda's behavior in the classroom
and through her interactions with friends and loved ones?
Do you think her flamboyant approach in all things serves to erode
her scholarship, or to augment it?
GG: Her personality is flamboyant. Her personality is self-created,
and she likes you to know that. She chose her own name. She
picked subjects to study that would shock and arouse people. Of
course, this is going to arouse envy in some of her colleagues, and I
never felt that theater hurt in the classroom. It could hurt, perhaps,
if you let it cover your lack of preparation. This quote is from The
Odd Woman, my other university book, from another professor. If
Magda were reading this in a book, she'd probably say, it's three-fourths
preparation and three-fourths theater--and then let everybody
figure out the mathematics!
Because she did prepare. She adored the summer research she
did for the love of it, collecting things she could challenge and
arouse her students with.
JMG: In The Good Husband, Hugo compares the stages of writing
a novel to the stages in a marriage--with a beginning, middle, and
end. For you, what is the process of writing a novel like? Is it similar
to Hugo's, or much different?
GG: For me, character is first. In some instances--for example, in
The Good Husband--problem is equally important to the character.
The problem here is, you're going to die. How do you do it, and
how does it look to those around you? What does it teach them?
Then I have the characters. When Hugo is writing this shipboard
lecture about novels being like a marriage, he's also sending
a message to his wife, saying, "It's all right. I know that we've gone
through the beginning, we're now in the middle, and we're probably
going to have one of those open-ended ends." It's a spoken letter
to her.
I go for this for my own writing, too. Hugo says that in the beginning,
you're attracted to something, and there's a summons.
You're so attracted that you want to go wherever this story promises
to take you, and wallow in it, and get to the bottom of it. At this
point, if it's going right, you fall in love with your material.
When you're in the middle, this is really the hard part. I'm
quoting him now, but also me: The middle of your book begins
when you know pretty much the kind of thing you've committed
yourself to. You've gotten into the rhythm; you know who's
going to be in the book, who doesn't belong in it. You know what
kind of book it's not going to be. And you still know what you
hope it can be. And this is the same with marriage. The honeymoon
is over, but the middle of the novel has arrived when your excitement
has faded, and you soberly face the limitations and the difficulties
of what's ahead.
So the first part is attraction, the middle point is chosen. So
now you have to choose. And you're going to find things in it that
irritate you, just like with a married partner. And you're either going
to take them out or say, well, this is what I chose.
Then the end. There's the closed ending, the more conventional
kind where everything gets wrapped up, and the open ending.
That's exactly what I know I'm going toward in my new book,
Queen of the Underworld. In an open ending, you're going to get
something different from what you anticipated in the beginning.
And that's because sometime during the middle of writing it, you
realize that the reality of the story just can't make a match with
those old anticipations. The story, as I've been writing it, has made
me see the necessity of going off in a new direction. Then you get
another little jolt of passion when you realize that the new direction
is exciting you--even if it's scary or bittersweet. And this isn't
going to be a satisfying, wrappy-up brand of outcome; it's going to
be going off into a new direction.
JMG: No happily-ever-afters?
GG: Maybe not. And instead of wrapping up, you see that your
characters have somewhere else to go that is right for them. And
this is going to be more powerful to you and to the reader than the
old satisfaction of seeing them safely home in each other's arms.
Yes, I subscribe to that. I would nod if I were in Hugo's audience,
on the ship, and say, "Yes, that's it."
JMG: The struggle between work and relationships is paramount
in the book. Magda is forced to give up her all-consuming work
due to her impending death; Alice chooses to do so; Hugo is consumed
by his writing; Francis abandons the priesthood for Magda.
Must the two opposing forces always be at odds? How can they be
reconciled--or, for some characters in The Good Husband, is that
simply impossible?
GG: I don't think that they always have to be at odds. If you are
very, very fortunate, you find the right work and the right person to
go with you. And it certainly helps if that person has work that he
or she cares about, as much as you care about yours. Magda is the
goal-oriented one--she loves her work and is driven by it. Hugo is
the same. Alice needs to get back to work, and indeed she does.
And Francis--he is extremely happy at the end of the book when
he's bringing something to completion, rebuilding this old seminary
into a retreat center. All of these characters feel happier when
they are working. Hugo is in hell when he isn't working. So the
thing is to aim for both, as Magda would say.
JMG: It's interesting that Magda really is the touchstone of this
book for the other characters. Why, in your opinion, does she have
such a profound affect on those around her? Is she a personality
type that welcomes this affection or disdains it?
GG: She is really the fire that they are all gathering around. They all
want some of the excitement and some of the warmth. On page 317,
when Ramirez-Suarez is telling his wife why Magda is so compelling,
he says that that fire was her passion, and that's what drove
her. That's what came out of her and attracted others. And for
Francis, it was more compelling than those moribund practices in
the seminaries that were killing off young vocations.
When she's in bed trying to figure out who she was, and what
she was, she realizes that she has been an arouser; that her vocation,
as it was lived out, has been to arouse and inflame others, and
not to fulfill. She thinks only art can do that. So she's been totally
true to her fire, and it's the reflection of her passion for her particular
work that compels these people. Then, of course, she's
developed her persona around it. Flamboyant hair, flamboyant
clothes.
JMG: Magda refers to her illness as "the Gargoyle," before the
reader even knows what, exactly, is ravaging her body. Why did
you choose to be vague about what Magda was suffering from until
midway into the book, and instead communicate her struggle
through literary and classroom references?
GG: Actually, the president of the college reveals that Magda is dying
of cancer in the opening pages, when he comes to visit her. She,
however, prefers to think of it as a mythical creature. That's her
style. As she tells Francis, it amuses her to personify this thing as a
living creature in her. She's its enemy, and it needs to munch on her
to grow bigger.
JMG: In contrast to Hugo and Magda's strong personalities, Alice
and Francis both display passivity. Do you feel that a spirit, a fire,
is lacking in them that others have (sometimes in overabundance)?
Or are they simply crafted of a different cloth?
GG: They are different. But Alice really had so much loss. Her
mother, father, and brother all wiped out at once. She's become
kind of punch-drunk, and it's amazing that she got through Princeton
and became an editor and even got that far. She could have just
lain down and given up all her spirit. I think her work, and then
Hugo, and then the hope of resurrecting everything through having
a child, and then, last of all, falling in love with Francis: These
things kept pulling her out of the abyss, and she made the choices
to keep on living.
At the end, Francis has come far enough to realize that he does
have his own desires. He wants to do what he wants to do, which
is probably going to be more of the same--taking care of other
people. But now, he knows that it's his passion.
JMG: He delves into himself, as Magda had always wanted him
to do.
GG: Yes. And he even says that, as he's scattering her ashes overboard:
"Now I'm finally thinking the way that you always wanted
me to think--but too late for you to enjoy it."
JMG: The book features Hugo grappling with the mixed feelings
of his South Carolina upbringing and of the character of the "new
South," mostly from his perch in New York. As a transplanted
Southerner yourself, did you find it cathartic to have a character
like him in the novel?
GG: I purged something from my own past with Hugo. For a
while, I had to live with a family like the Manigaults, because my
stepfather had to move to another town. And so Mother and he left
me behind for two months, so I could finish out the school year
with this family, and there were many scenes that were like Hugo's
ordeals. I didn't fit in. These people--knowingly or not--put me
through the tortures that Hugo describes.
JMG: Alice has suffered loss after loss, first of her family, and then
of her baby. In which ways is she a tragic figure? How does she
cope with the tragedies that surround her? How does she stop
"preferring the company of the dead to the living"?
GG: She's not tragic in the classic sense because she didn't bring
on her own downfall. She's just been beaten down by one calamity
after another. And actually, she copes quite well. She has her breakdown
when she needs to, she pulls herself together, and she develops
a trade, a skill. And then, at the end, how does she stop
preferring the company of the dead to the living? She falls in love.
She falls in love with Francis. It doesn't matter whether she gets
him or not, because it makes her want to live.
JMG: There's a great deal of writer's block being experienced in
this story. Hugo's pen stops cold after the publication of A Month
with the Manigaults, while Magda never writes the much-awaited
sequel to The Book of Hell. Do Francis and Alice suffer anything
that's tantamount to this affliction? Did you ever battle writer's
block during the writing of this novel?
GG: I don't think Francis suffers anything tantamount to writer's
block. As for Alice, after the death of her child, she can't do anything.
During this book, I never once battled writer's block. Before
I started this book, I was about three chapters into the book I
thought I was going to write, and then, when I got this interest in
death, I had to drop it. The times when I've had what they call
writer's block, it usually means that the novel was either miscarried
or stillborn. I've never had writer's block and then finished a novel.
I've had problems. For instance, with Violet Clay, I was trying to
make it one kind of novel and it became another. But it still had the
same people in it. I had hoped to write what they call a gothic
novel, but it became too real for that.
JMG: This book is not a "closed narrative," one where everyone
lives happily ever after and all problems are ironed out. Was this a
deliberate choice on your part? Do you think that the reader might
expect Alice and Francis to begin a relationship? Did you ever ponder
a sequel?
GG: I left it open. I knew that Alice and Hugo were going to break
up. I knew that Magda was going to die. I wasn't sure about Alice
and Francis, because she wanted him so much and he seemed to
like having her around. But when it came right down to it, it didn't
happen. And many readers wanted it to happen. When this book
was in the editorial process, several editors read it over, and one
said, "Oh, please, please, I want to see Alice go to the airport and
meet Francis when he comes back from the Midwest, where he's
been building the retreat center. And I want to see them kiss!"
When this reader said that, I thought, "Oh, no, you don't. That's
not going to happen." And I never pondered a sequel.
JMG: I'm sure you've been deluged with letters from readers, saying,
"Can't there be another book where Alice and Francis get
together?"
GG: That happened with Father Melancholy, too. And I said
no. Then I ended up writing Evensong [the sequel to Father
Melancholy], where the two very unlikely people get together; the
younger woman and an older priest get married. So . . .
JMG: So never say never?
GG: Never say never!
JMG: Recently, you've taken a break from novels to tackle non-fiction
books. Do you plan on continuing that path? What are you
set to write next?
GG: I wrote a short novel, Evenings at Five, which will be out in
April. And I'm writing a novel about a young woman who is a
journalist--I have a feeling that it will turn into two novels because
I want to stay with her for a while longer. I don't think I'll ever do
a nonfiction book again. I do love to do short nonfiction pieces. For
instance, a friend of mine is publishing an anthology of snake stories,
poems, and essays. I offered to write one, because the subject
intrigues me, so I'm writing an essay called "My Snakes." Which
means research, and it will be nonfiction, but it will be fifteen pages
at the most. It's figuring out why I like snakes. I'm just about finished
with that.
But for the rest of my life, I want to write novels.
Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

1. Magda says of William Blake and his wife, Catherine: "She was his mate, but she was not his match." In light of this quote, discuss the meaning of the title The Good Husband. What other meanings does the title suggest?

2. Laurence tells Hugo, "We can't be free until we tell our story."
How is self-censorship a common problem of the characters in
The Good Husband? What holds them back from being perfectly honest with one another, and with themselves? How do they triumph over their self-censoring impulses, or do they?

3. By the end of the novel, Alice has taken Elberta under her wing.
How does Elberta become like a surrogate child to Alice? How do she, Alice, and Francis begin to comprise a makeshift family?
What does Elberta admire about both of them?

4. Cal accuses his father of "making people into what you've decided who they are, like characters in your novels." Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Who in The Good
Husband is guilty of this trait? Does it prevent them from acknowledging the realities of life, or serve as a coping technique?

5. How does Magda's statement about mates and matches apply to her marriage to Francis? Does it pertain also to the partnership between Hugo and Alice? In your view, what are the biggest challenges faced by each couple?

6. The Good Husband pivots on two very different marriages.
What, in your opinion, could each partnership learn from the other? What lessons, if any, has Hugo learned from his first marriage?

7. As she becomes more and more ill, Magda grows increasingly fascinated by her impending demise. How does she become more comfortable with the concept of death by equating it with literature and her academic life? Does this allow her to understand the coming "final examination," or does it instead remove her farther from it? In your opinion, what does she most want to understand about herself--and those around her--before she dies?

8. When Alice begins to visit Magda, she slowly starts to work her way out of depression. Why do you think that Magda has that effect on her? In turn, what about Alice so appeals to the dying woman? What similarities, if any, do the two women share?

9. Francis chooses to live his life for others. How has this pattern evolved throughout his life? What characteristics of his personality compel him to service? How is he different from Magda in that regard? What aspects of his personality cause Alice to fall in love with him?

10. In which ways is Magda mean-spirited toward Francis? In your opinion, does she take joking too far? Does she deliberately taunt him? How does he respond to her verbal sparring?

11. Francis is the object of affection for several women in the novel.
What about him so intrigues the opposite sex? Why isn't he threatening to the men around him? Do you think that he will marry again?

12. The death of Hugo and Alice's child devastates both of them.
What are the different ways in which they deal with grief? Does
Alice's experience with death make her more resilient than
Hugo or less so?

13. When she marries Hugo, Alice is a successful editor. What about her personality compels her to give up a burgeoning career without a second thought? Why does Hugo's writing appeal to both her mind and her heart? Do you think she will remain Hugo's "best reader"?

14. At the outset, what compelled Alice to choose home birth for her son? How does that decision relate to the sudden loss of her family? How does their sudden death haunt her throughout the book? In particular, how is Alice consumed by her relationship with her brother?

15. Magda and Hugo both explode with outbursts throughout the novel. How do these fits of temper enable them to cope with their difficulties? Do these outbursts also hinder their ability to cope? What other similarities do Magda and Hugo share?

16. The theme of the muse as the source of inspiration resonates throughout The Good Husband. How does creative inspiration sometimes elude both Magda and Hugo? How is Hugo's imagination stirred by meeting Bea McCandless and traveling to his boyhood home? What is Magda's view about the "spirits"
that propel--or stymie--her own work?

17. Magda tells Francis, "You're one of the tireless ones." How is this an accurate assessment of her husband? Does this statement also sum up Magda's personality? If so, how?

18. In your opinion, what are Francis's "beasties in the shadows"?
Why did Magda want to connect with his inner demons? If she had, would the character of Francis have been more fully realized and well-rounded? How would the marriage have been different as a result?

19. Hugo constantly finishes Alice's sentences and answers questions meant for her. Why does she initially accept this behavior?
What compels her to finally become irritated by it?

20. Hugo has a tumultuous relationship with his son, Cal. Why do the two find it difficult to relate to one another? How does
Cal's homosexuality and relationship with Laurence force the father-son relationship to evolve?

21. Spirituality is an underlying theme in The Good Husband. Although
Francis abandons the seminary upon meeting Magda,
does his religious faith continue to guide him? How does his spirituality translate into the secular world? How does Magda's unique brand of spirituality intensify as she faces her "final examination"?
Do you think Francis will become more out-wardly religious following Magda's death?

22. The alumni cruise takes place on the ship Galatea. Knowing that Galatea is the woman transformed by Pygmalion in the
Greek myth, why is the ship's moniker important? How is the cruise a pivotal event for those sailing on it, especially Francis,
Alice, and Hugo

Read More Show Less

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2000

    A Wonderful Book

    This was the first book I read by this particular author and I am in complete awe. Godwin does a great job in making her characters come alive for the reader. I could read volumes on the character of Magda. Godwin describes perfectly the psycho-social impact of terminal illness on the individual and those close to the individual. Godwin softly weaves humor in her characters. This is one book that I did not want to end. I applaud Ms. Godwin for a fine novel. I look forward to reading Godwin's other treasures.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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