What exactly constitutes ”
women’s fiction” is always a fraught question
. As publishers market it, it’s book-club fodder: more intellectual and less materialistic than chick lit, but still relatable and stylistically accessible. At worst, it’s the literary equivalent of Lifetime: Television for Women. Lori Lansens’ 2006 bestseller
, about a pair of conjoined twins, was an example of the genre near its best: a story of two female characters in rare circumstances so meticulously imagined that you couldn’t put it down.
Lansens’ new novel, The Wife’s Tale , is more problematic. The wife is Mary Gooch, a middle-aged woman who has lived her whole life in a small Canadian town and been obese for most of it. On the eve of her 25 th wedding anniversary, her husband, Gooch, disappears. Suddenly there is something she wants more than the massive quantities of food she consumes to mute a lifetime’s worth of worry and guilt. The woman who couldn’t bear being too far from her refrigerator follows Gooch’s trail to California.
The book’s main weakness is that the oversimplified moral nearly obscures the story. That moral is risky, a stand against the gospel of self-acceptance regularly preached to the exact demographic that reads Lansen’s books. The lesson we are meant to get out of Mary Gooch’s story is that fat people are inherently unhappy and losing weight makes them happier. A little more subtly, the book suggests that compulsive eating is, for women, an anti-feminist act. Mary Gooch feels so addicted to food that her ambitions are no greater than arranging her next binge; her release from that dependency parallels her decreasing emotional dependence on her husband.
And yet, Lansens’ rendering of the hell that is compulsive eating somehow transcends these overarching positions, eliciting simultaneously compassion, revulsion, and, for anyone who has ever struggled with emotional eating, undeniable recognition. And when Lansens isn’t indulging in the overwrought attempts at poetic language that give “women’s fiction” a bad name, Mary Gooch’s thoughts and gradual discovery that there is more to her than the eater and the wife, seem to arise from the character rather than the author. In other words, Mary Gooch becomes real and unforgettable.