Mary Gooch is forty-three years old, stands five feet, six inches tall, and weighs more than three hundred pounds. For most of her life, save one too-brief interval, she has been overweight. As a child, when she overheard the doctor explain to her mother that Mary was morbidly obese, she thought he said “obeast.” Since that day, she has thought of her unrelenting hunger as a beast tormenting her and driving her to overeat. Ironically, it was her mother who substituted food for affection and attention in her relationship with her daughter.
Mary has been married to Jimmy for twenty-five years. In fact, they will celebrate their anniversary with a few friends at a local restaurant the next evening. Jimmy has remained fit and handsome, just as he was in high school when they began dating. Mary has suffered two miscarriages, and her childlessness has contributed to her increasing loneliness and expanding girth. She measures life milestones by the pounds she gained in response to the event, often engaging in binge eating.
And then Jimmy simply does not come home from work. Mary calls his cell phone and leaves multiple messages, but he does not return her calls. His employer also wonders where Jimmy has gone, because he has not heard from him, either. Initially, when it becomes apparent that Jimmy has not been hurt in an accident of some sort, but has vanished nonetheless, Mary takes to her bed, sleeping for days.
Jimmy writes to apologize for leaving abruptly. He explains that he won the lottery and has deposited money in their joint account for her. Mary is shocked when she discovers the balance now exceeds twenty-five thousand dollars and wonders if Jimmy will withdraw it just as suddenly from wherever he is. She pays several months in advance for her mother’s nursing home care and embarks on a journey away from everyone and everything that is familiar to her.
Mary has never traveled very far from her small hometown; she has never been on an airplane. Her aversion to travel, fueled largely by her inability to find suitable clothing in which she can feel comfortable and confident, has been a point of contention between Mary and Jimmy, who, over the years, urged her to accompany him on business trips and take vacations with him.
Now that Jimmy has left her, Mary bravely strikes out in search of her husband, taking along little more than the clothes on her back and money wondrously withdrawn from the automated teller. First, she drives to Toronto to see if Jimmy has gone there to see his sister. She then flies to California in case he has taken refuge at his mother’s home. Mary has no idea about how to travel or what to wear, but, fortunately, kind-hearted strangers come to her aid all along the way. She makes new friends and forges a surprising alliance that eases her own burdens, as well as those of her unlikely new comrade.
Will Mary find Jimmy? And if she does, what will they say to each other? What explanation, beyond what he has written to her, will Jimmy provide for having left on the very eve of their silver anniversary? And if Mary does not find Jimmy, how will she fare on her own? What will she find and what will she learn from her adventure?
When I heard about The Wife’s Tale, I immediately wanted to read it. The subject matter intrigued me, especially considering that I, like many Americans, have struggled with weight issues my entire life. I wanted to see how Lansens, whose previous books I have not read, would handle the subject matter and whether Mary Gooch would, through her journey, develop greater self-esteem and self-confidence, losing weight in the process. The book has received rave reviews from professional critics and bloggers alike.
The Wife’s Tale was disappointing. Although Lansens may have approached her subject matter with the best intentions, the result was a meandering, boring book that seemed it would never either make its point or come to a logical end. The main character, Mary, is so unbelievable that it is practically impossible to relate to or develop empathy for her. Mary is not merely unsophisticated and largely uneducated. She lacks common sense and the ability to engage in rational decision-making. Worse, as I read the author’s descriptions of both Mary’s thought processes and physical movements, I could not shake the feeling that Lansens herself not only disliked Mary, but also lacked insight into the details of the day-to-day existence of her protagonist. The author’s disdain for Mary was most apparent in her credulity-strained description of the length to which Mary went to lose weight and keep that weight off for a brief period of time during which Jimmy became interested in her and they began their sexual relationship. As a reader, I cannot emotionally invest in a character that I feel the author is blatantly repulsed by and abhors.
Mary is a character that in some way or other I’ve known all my life. She is culled from stories I’ve heard and people I know and things that I’ve read about . . . My frail humanity may not manifest as a weight problem but I understand her deeply and feel her pain and maybe I wrote about her because I knew she needed to move on – from Gooch, the fridge, her stasis.~ Author Lori Lansens
Mary trudged — literally, wearing her winter boots — from Toronto and on to California, suffering one setback after another. Apparently, from those complications, Lansens wants her readers to understand that Mary persevered. Survived in spite of her own stupidity would be a more apt description of Mary’s accomplishments. Lacking transportation, Mary begins walking up and down the hills of suburban California, making the journey from her hotel room to her mother-in-law’s house, often forgetting to eat — an apparent signal that Mary is growing emotionally stronger and less dependent on food to soothe her feelings of self-loathing and detachment. Mary is apparently too dumb, lazy or both to secure adequate nutrition for herself, so she subsides on snacks, becoming light-headed and dehydrated. But the waistband on her nondescript attire becomes less snug, so that must mean that the character is undergoing emotional growth, right? Wrong.
Mary Gooch could and should have been a compelling, intriguing character who, after living a solitary life marked by loneliness, isolation, and fear of being judged by others, finally summons the courage to change her circumstances after her husband leaves her in the most cowardly manner imaginable. The result should have been the character’s psychological and spiritual awakening, the natural consequence of which would have been an accompanying physical transformation.
Instead, Mary Gooch seems to merely lope along from one pathetic episode to another until the story mercifully draws to a close. Nothing is resolved by that point, however, and it is entirely unclear what Mary learned over the course of her journey or how she is going to apply her new-found knowledge to her changed circumstances. Hopefully, she will develop healthy eating habits that will make it possible for her to maintain and continue her weight loss, in addition to continuing to enjoy her new, nurturing relationships. And if she ever comes face to face with Jimmy, I hope that she will have become empowered enough to realize that she deserves to be treated much better and refuses to take him back.
Frankly, the book offended and angered me, because, in my estimation, Lansens did a huge disservice to her readers by virtue of the manner in which she portrayed Mary. Lansens contributes to the stereotyped image of overweight women as stupid, slovenly, lazy, and incapable of successfully managing their lives. After I finished reading it, I wished I had instead spent those hours in water aerobics class . . . working on my own weight management issues.
I read The Wife’s Tale in conjunction with the 2010 Read ‘n’ Review and the Fall Into Reading 2010 challenges.