Old and New Wives’ Tales

“The Wife,” for which Glenn Close received a 2019 Oscar nomination, has a similar plot, except the husband (played by Jonathan Pryce), is an acclaimed novelist. The present-day part of the story is set in 1992, but the courtship of Joan and Joseph began in 1958. There was a power imbalance from the beginning because she was a college student and he was her dashing young professor.

A scene in the movie and in the novel by Meg Wolitzer shows her meeting an embittered “lady writer” who foresees her own obscurity and loneliness and a similar fate for Joan or any other female novelist. Wolitzer’s 2003 book includes another reason for Joan’s decision to make her husband shine: He is Jewish and her parents are anti-Semitic. If he becomes a celebrity author, Joan believes, her parents might be more accepting of him as a son-in-law. She turns out to be right. Wolitzer has said of her fictional character that “Joan is not a victim.” She chose her path, though bending to society’s norms at the time.

Wolitzer, who often peoples her best-selling novels with Jewish characters and addresses feminist issues head-on, fortunately came of age in the 1980s. Her mother, the respected writer Hilma Wolitzer, now 90, “was seen as a housewife who became a novelist, as if it was this shocking thing,” her daughter has said. In 2012, the younger Wolitzer wrote an essay for the New York Times titled “The Second Shelf” in which she outlined how women’s fiction is often taken less seriously than men’s.