#LiteraryWives: The Headmaster’s Wife

It’s time for another discussion of the Literary Wives, an online book club that examines the role of the wife in different books. It’s a good way for me to start this whole blogging thing again, which had to be put on hold for the past 2 months.

The book tells the story of Arthur Winthrop, the headmaster at an exclusive private school in Vermont. To Arthur, it has always been clear that he would fill the position that both his father and grandfather have held before him. His life seems pretty cushy, with a wife and a son, a nice house on campus, and an abundance of Scotch to make the evenings easier to bear. So it is surprising when Arthur is found wandering naked in Central Park. As he tells the police how he got to that point, it becomes clear that things are not quite what they initially seemed.

I have to admit that although the prose flowed easily enough, I wasn’t really invested in the story. I didn’t care for Arthur, and I never got a good sense of his wife, Elizabeth. And if this had not been a choice of the book club, I would have given up on it pretty quickly. Who wants to read yet another book about an old man (Arthur is 58) having an affair with an 18-year-old student? Especially once he starts pressuring the girl into continuing the affair, even though she wants to end it? There are hints of a tragedy, but it wasn’t until it is revealed that Arthur is a highly unreliable narrator that I started to find the story somewhat interesting. At this point, Arthur’s story is retold by Elizabeth. She gives us some details that Arthur left out and puts his story into chronological order, which added a nice touch. But then the ending was once again a letdown. Yeah, the world is a small place, but it’s made a little too small here for my taste.

Now that I have had a little time to think about the book, I am once again left wondering who came up with the title of the book. It would have been more apt to call this book The Headmaster and His Wife, maybe, because ultimately, this is not the story of Elizabeth; this is the story of Arthur, with a little bit of Elizabeth thrown in at the end. I didn’t find anything unique the book had to say about being a wife. Heck, I didn’t even find anything unique about the characters. They could have been anyone. And so, even though I found the book enjoyable to read while I was at it, I am fairly confident that it will quickly fade from my memory.

Don’t forget to check out what the other members of the book club have to say about it:

On June 4, we’ll be reading Stay With Me by Ayobami Adobayi. Feel free to join us.

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11 comments

  1. I’m glad you warned me about this one — I think I will avoid it. I read & reviewed Stay With Me last fall and I think you’ll like that one a bit more — there’s various issues at play in the story. Quite sad too. Cheers.

  2. YES. I felt the same way – if it hadn’t been for this event, I never would have finished the book. There was no payoff for sticking with it. Nothing about it stood out.

    I have to say though, I’m really really glad that we all seem to feel the same way about this book!

  3. Yes, it certainly was ‘a small world’! I also felt these characters were very stereotypical, almost just representative, not necessarily unique characters, except for Russell. I liked Russell and was proud that he could have compassion for Arthur in the end. Welcome!!

  4. Welcome back! I think you and Naomi have convinced me that this isn’t the book for me. I probably should have sympathy for Arthur as he’s ill, but I think I’d struggle to invest in him – privileged older man, lusting after young women, yuck.

  5. Ooh, I like that comment. “The world is a small place . . . but it’s made a little too small here.” Yes, that’s right. And yes, this story isn’t about Elizabeth at all. I guess we all hope the next book is better.

  6. Everything you’ve just said is exactly how I feel/felt about the book! Disgusted by the first part, but a little more hopeful once I found out Arthur was unreliable. Wondering why it’s called “The Headmaster’s Wife” when it’s really about the Headmaster. I did end up finding it somewhat entertaining, but it quickly faded from my memory… even though it had only been a couple of weeks, I had to rely heavily on my notes and on flipping through the books to remember what happened.
    I have much higher hopes for the next book! (And glad to see you back!)

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