I’m fascinated by fictional studies of marriage and what they reveal about people in general. Wife 22 does not, as fans of TLC’s Sister Wives might think, refer to the 22nd wife of a polygamist, but rather the pseudonym that’s been given to Alice Buckle as part of her participation in a survey about marriage.
Alice, a wife and mom who is a former playwright and current elementary school drama teacher, impulsively answers an email looking for volunteers to fill out surveys about their marriages. Answering the questions proves more complicated than she expected, especially when her correspondence with Researcher 101, her liaison at the sponsoring institute, becomes personal. Her growing relationship with Researcher 101, along with revisiting the high and low points of her marriage, has Alice wondering what she really wants. “I don’t know why,” Alice’s husband, William, tells her at one point, “you insist on keeping yourself from the things you love.” William’s lament, in many ways, sums up the novel for me. I found myself mad at both Alice and William on more than one occasion because they couldn’t seem to get together in the same place at the same time. They appeared to be deliberately turning away from one another, almost punishing themselves for some unnamed wrong. Yet this is not uncommon. Why do we restrain ourselves from whole-heartedly enjoying those things that make us happy?
For all the seriousness involved in watching someone figure out if she still wants to be married, there’s lots of humor and lighter moments throughout the novel. Alice is surrounded by a wide variety of people. She suspects her twelve- year-old son may be gay and just can’t admit it; her fifteen-year-old daughter is being stalked, albeit romantically, by an ex-boyfriend; her best friend has a fondness for hosting festive dinners of food from other cultures; and a friend from her past not only sends her daughter to live with the Buckles, but soon arrives, husband in tow, on the Buckles doorstep as well.
Alice is far from perfect, even a bit selfish, but that helped me see her as a more three-dimensional character. I enjoyed getting to know Alice, even if I was slightly disappointed not to get to know William a little better. Gideon’s technique of writing not only in prose, but also in emails, Facebook posts, and play dialogue successfully offers different perspectives on Alice’s dilemma.