Scandal and Secrets: The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress, by Ariel Lawhon

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.

Image courtesy of Goodreads

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

literarywives1

16 comments on “Scandal and Secrets: The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress, by Ariel Lawhon

  1. whatmeread says:

    Nice review! That’s certainly a valid point about Ritzi being the most liberated character, but I’m not sure we understand much about her marriage.

  2. Ariel Price says:

    The more I think about it, the more confused about and intrigued by Stella I am. I’m starting to understand why Ariel Lawhon read about Stella’s ritual and it got stuck in her head and she had to write the story! She really did enjoy her standard of living with Joe, even though he was a jerk. And her going to work at the switchboard didn’t really feel like a victory for her, did it? At first I thought it was, but she wasn’t really happy. Hm. Great review!

    • Cecilia says:

      Yes, I feel that Stella and women like Stella make that choice. They must have some idea of what they’re getting themselves into. Back in college a friend from Hong Kong was telling me about the society women there – that their husbands all have affairs but they learn to live with it if not to expect it, because it’s the price they’re willing to pay for the lifestyle they get to enjoy! But Stella is an enigma to me.

  3. I love the quotes you’ve pulled out!! Aside from this great story, I was quite taken, more than once, with a sentence or phrase Lawhon created — very artistic and poetic, which wasn’t exactly the tone of the novel and yet fit so well.

    Like you, I think Ritzi got the ‘happily ever after’ — and I’m so glad for her. Was v upset about Maria’s end(ing) — given the passion she and Jude had, it seemed so especially unfair! (But then again, that quote by the doctor — ugh, so true!). Of course, had she be around in 1969, I wonder if that would have changed Jude’s response/feelings — was it easier to be ‘loyal’ to Maria with her gone than if he had to go home and confront her?

    • Cecilia says:

      Ah, very interesting question, Audra. There was no discussion to be had, and a certain kind of memory that Jude wanted to preserve. I agree with you about poor Maria’s fate! But it figures, eh? They say that cancer is the nice person’s disease. I’m glad you enjoyed the book!

  4. Ngan R. says:

    I haven’t heard of this book before, but the women and mystery sound intriguing. I don’t read much about the 1930s, fiction or nonfiction, and this sounds like an interesting story I should save for a rainy weekend. Nice review!

  5. Emily J. says:

    Great review, Cecilia! I love what you say about the constraints placed on women in their marriages, but how Ritzi’s might be the most egalitarian. I wish we knew what went on with her marriage before this story starts, and I would love to see a sequel of her life after all of this.

    • Cecilia says:

      Thanks, Emily! Yes, I’m curious about Ritzi’s marriage and husband too. I just wonder about the kind of husband who is willing to take back his wife under those particular circumstances. I was quite surprised (and I am guessing the whole thing must have been beyond scandalous back in the 30s). I keep imagining Ritzi with a “happily ever after” ending. While reading this book I started looking up details of the actual events, and was saddened that the real Ritzi had disappeared off the face of the earth.

  6. Carolyn O says:

    Great review — so detailed and thoughtful! I know she’s not one of the wives, but I was really interested in Ritzi’s friend — the madam — whose name escapes me at the moment. I’d like to read a novel about her.

  7. rudrip says:

    This is not a book I would ordinarily pick up, but after this review, I will definitely check it out. Thanks, Cecilia!

  8. Lynn says:

    I had forgotten about Jude still trying to defend Maria decades later! Thanks for that reminder. Audra, I also wondered how it all might be different if Maria had survived… And Vivian…I would think a whole book sits right there with this one character. I was rather fascinated by her and what little we know of her story. Ritzi with an egalitarian marriage? Really? I don’t know. Perhaps, but certainly not equal? I was a bit angry with Ritzi for returning to her husband and expecting…what? Though she did approach the house very hesitantly, etc., I guess I’m too hardhearted and just couldn’t imagine being in his position and accepting her and her child-to-be back into his life and heart. I’ve been betrayed in a marriage and can’t imagine such forgiveness…and after 3 whole years? I thought that was totally unrealistic, though perhaps for the rural/isolated location and lifestyle and times, perhaps it wasn’t. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do it… Thanks for such a thought-provoking review, Cecilia!

  9. I love reading about women and the history of women in the 20′s and 30′s, especially the way women dressed during this period too:) I love the TV show Boardwalk Empire. Thanks for sharing!

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