I’m happy to do my second post for the Literary Wives virtual book club. There are six other members posting as well, and I’ll share their links at the end of this post.
December’s read is The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress, a debut novel by Ariel Lawhon. It’s a fictionalized account of the 1930 disappearance of Joseph Crater, a judge on the New York City Supreme Court.
In Lawhon’s version of events, Joseph Crater was last seen on August 6, 1930 getting into a taxi with his mistress Ritzi, a showgirl. The two had just spent the evening with Crater’s lawyer friend William Klein at the night club owned by notorious gangster Owney Madden. Partway through the evening Crater had said to Ritzi, “Why don’t you go powder your nose? . . . Now.” (p. 29). Of course, that’s code for “Let us adult men talk.” Ritzi, while indignant, knows her part and does as Crater says. She spends just enough time in the ladies’ room to let them finish whatever it is they need to talk about, and when she returns to the table she catches pieces of their conversation, which hint heavily at some kind of attempt at a cover up and threat of foul play.
In the taxi Crater tells the driver to take them to the Belasco Theater, where Crater is only able to get one ticket for that night’s show. Ritzi offers to go home, but Crater redirects the driver to Coney Island. Crater books a hotel room for the two of them and it is here that Crater is last seen.
The rest of the novel moves both forward and back from alternating perspectives of Crater’s wife, maid, and mistress, to show the investigation following the disappearance and also the back story that finally reveals what happened to Crater and who was involved.
Here are the two questions we’re talking about:
1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?
Maria, the maid, is married to a member of the NYPD whom Crater pulls some strings to promote to detective. Following this favor, he says to Maria, “I do wonder . . . how the daughter of Spanish immigrants managed to snag one of New York’s finest.” (p. 19) Stella defends Maria, but adds, “You are smart enough to know that a woman is only as good as her husband is. The better off he is, the better off you are. Many women don’t understand that.”
She is speaking of the times, of course, when the financial quality of a woman’s life was really only as good as her husband. Stella has scarified everything in terms of personal choice and peace (and, yes, integrity) in order to enjoy her life of luxury with a corrupt and wealthy politician. At the possibility of ruin, she cries,
“If they [find and convict Joe], it ruins everything . . . My life! Everything we built. Every night I spend alone. Every compromise I made for him. Every one of Joe’s affairs. Not to mention every penny we have. All for nothing!” (p. 226) Stella’s extreme dependence on her husband for a certain lifestyle puts her in shackles, and she is stripped of any power to speak up or to expect respect from her husband.
However, marriage appears happier, kinder, safer, and more equal for the working class Maria and Ritzi, who has a husband in the book (I can’t say much more about Ritzi’s marriage without giving things away). Maria works two jobs as a maid and a tailor and is married to a man who loves her fiercely. Jude is very protective of Maria, and for good reason given the circumstances, but there is that sense that as a wife she needs to be protected. While in the bath together one evening, there is this interesting imagery:
“Their knees rose from the water like mountain peaks from mist, and she was locked between his legs.” (p. 234)
Jude will work hard to protect Maria, even decades after her death.
Finally, Ritzi, despite also being locked in her own shackles as a puppet for Owney Madden, has an iron will that drives her to try and take charge of her life on her own terms, as much as she possibly can given her own difficult circumstances and the constraints on women at the time. In the very few scenes that we see her with her husband, we get the sense that he is someone who loves her as she is, as he accepts her under less than ideal circumstances.
I think it is no coincidence that the most internally liberated woman in this story is the one in the most (presumably) egalitarian marriage. Ritzi is the one who has the greatest sense of autonomy and confidence in herself.
Overall I found The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress a fun, entertaining, and fast read. I enjoyed it in part for the mystery but more for the story about women. It’s a story about what it meant to be a woman in the early decades of the 20th century and it’s a story about husbands and wives. I can’t say that I was terribly surprised at the ending but it was still an entertaining read with some twists and a conclusion that will satisfy those readers who don’t enjoy loose ends, like those that exist in the real life story of Joseph Crater.
Please also check out my fellow book club members for their take on the book!
Ariel of One Little Library
Audra of Unabridged Chick - Audra has a wonderful Q&A up with Ariel Lawhon, with questions from us.
Carolyn O of Rosemary and Reading Glasses
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Kay of WHATMEREAD
Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors