How To Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman

How To Be a Good WifeHow To Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

First of all, I always feel bad when I write a mediocre review, because I have the greatest admiration for anyone who puts in the hard work to write a book, and then has the courage to share it with an audience. However, that said, my honest reactions in reading this novel were boredom and frustration. Despite this, the writing was at times haunting and lovely, and the ending was unexpected and in a strange way, satisfying.
How To Be a Good Wife is the story of Marta Bjornstad, a middle-aged woman living amidst the fjords and valleys of a non-specific Scandinavian country. Her adult son has recently left home to move in with his girlfriend, and her husband Hector is a calm, logical, professor at a nearby university.
As the story begins, Marta starts to see a young blond girl-a hallucination? a ghost? The reader, and Marta, are not sure. We are told that Marta is on some type of psychiatric medication, and that she has recently stopped taking her pills. There is not too much more I can say about the plot of How To Be a Good Wife without giving away spoilers, but I will share some of my reactions to the novel as a whole.
First of all, although the book is a short 288 pages, it seems extremely repetitive…a groundhog-day type story in which it seems like every time Marta turns around, this blond girl is appearing to her with slightly different pajamas, slightly dirtier, or thinner, or healthier. Then the girl disappears into thin air, and Marta walks into another room in her house, and the girl appears again. Over and over and over. As a reader, I understood quickly that some type of vision was appearing to Marta, and the repetition seemed completely unnecessary and tedious.
Secondly, as other reviewers have noted, this novel is extremely “cold.” For much of the story, Marta is alone in her house in the country; she lives an isolated existence while her husband and son work outside of the home. Her first person narration is flat, mechanical, and stunted. We learn that Marta has a rather mysterious past, and that she has lived a very regimented existence as Hector’s submissive wife, following the old-fashioned gender dynamics prescribed in a book entitled How To Be a Good Wife that Hector’s mother gave Marta as a wedding gift.
The setting for the novel reflects Marta’s haunting isolation; she lives surrounded by cold fjords, shadowy valleys, and falling snow. And Marta’s conversations with her husband and son are stilted and formal. There is a certain beauty to the tone created in this novel, a fragile perfection much like the porcelain dolls that Marta collects, or the ballet lessons that she remembers from childhood. But at the same time, this coolness means that it is difficult for the reader to become emotionally invested in Marta’s life, or to empathize with her as a character.
In contrast to the tedium of the first 2/3 of the book, I found the final action to be extremely frustrating and even unbelievable.  The  doctors that Marta interacts with don’t react in the way I would think they are obligated to, given the things she tells them.
All that said, the way the author chose to end the novel was not exactly what I had expected, but it had a sort of satisfying grace. It referred back nicely to an earlier event in Marta’s life, and also resolved the power dynamics that Marta had lived with as Hector’s wife in an interesting way. The end of the novel was well done in that it was consistent with the cool, bloodless tone of the rest of the story.
How To Be a Good Wife is a book about grief, and about personal autonomy. Unfortunately, for me, it was not an enjoyable read, and it wasn’t genuinely thought-provoking, either. It left me sad, and ready to move onto something more life-affirming.

View all my reviews

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. cleopatralovesbooks
    Feb 09, 2014 @ 13:19:46

    Thanks for the review, this one has been hovering at the edges of my TBR and your review has convinced me that I can let it go. The issues you had with the book are identical to those that frustrate me, namely endless repetition (I get it the first time!) and unbelievable actions especially by more than one character. A great example of how to explain why a book didn’t meet your expectations 🙂


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