Book Report: Wifey (1978)


When I was cleaning under the bed the other day—for the first time in what unearthed issues of Harper’s suggested must be close to two years—I uncovered my yellowed copy of Judy Blume’s Wifey. My immediate reaction was, “Hot damn! I ought to do a book report on this for the Wonk-o-Mance blog!”

I should say up front, Wifey isn’t a romance, and hence can never be classified as a wonk-o-mance. But it’s in a bastard cousin of the genre and was required reading of a bygone era of bold ladies, and it’s thoroughly wonked, so I’m going to round it in.

My copy is a used one—I was two months old when the first paperback edition came out in 1979. My mom was thirty. Sandy, the book’s protagonist, has two young children, seven and ten, I believe, while at the time of publication my mom had a toddler and an infant. Like Sandy, I’m thirty-two, though I don’t have any kids yet. But it was interesting to read the book again for the first time in a few years, being the protagonist’s age and now married, and knowing my mother was a similar age when the book was making waves, a young, stay-at-home mom like Sandy. I’m a stay-at-home writer with a somewhat uncomfortable relationship with my housewifely duties [see: bed not cleaned under in two years]. In short, it all felt very relevant. The book makes me feel a strange, warped kinship with women of my mom’s generation. It’s like taking a field trip into alternate universe of young womanhood. This could have been me…

Wifey is of a genre I quite adore—smutty, rife with scandal and longing and lust and betrayal, with an ending that would make many a happily-ever-after-requiring reader burn the book upon finishing. The last lesson it seeks to impart is “love makes everything okay.”

It very much made me yearn to reread another book— Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls (1966). But I already reread that last year, as I do most summers. Valley has got a pretty terrible reputation, but goddamn, I love that book. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it, but it’s in a very heated race with Island of the Blue Dolphins and A Prayer For Owen Meany for the book I’ve spent the most time in. Make of that what you will.

Wifey and Valley of the Dolls are both anti-romances…nearly. They’re jaded, sure, but both are packed with protagonists longing for love and romance. The characters want nothing more than an HEA, but the stories’ morals say, “Sorry Toots, you ain’t gettin’ it.”

Valley is far grittier, and grander in scale and plot, but the books’ endings, in respect to those scales, are strikingly similar in tone. Not suicide-pact tragic, but not cheerful. Endings that don’t satisfy one’s craving for romantic resolution or perpetuate the notion that true love will make everything okay. They’re downers, in a matter of speaking. But I love them so. The thing I, as a reader, relish even more than a happy, tidy ending, is envelope pushing, and Blume was pushing some pretty heavy envelopes when she wrote Wifey. Remember how in Forever… (1975; thanks to my awesome, sex-positive, pragmatist mom for giving it to me when I was about eleven) it was kind of shocking, when the heroine doesn’t stay with the boy she loses her virginity to? Shocking, but…realistic. I mean, how many of us have only slept with one person, the one we marry? Plenty of people, but not a majority, that’s for sure.

So Blume shocked people…by being realistic in a genre not always welcoming of a strict adherence realism. And she did so again in Wifey. Everything that happens in Wifey rings true. It’s more than a bit seedy, but I totally believe there were and are tens of thousands of Sandys out there. Perhaps fewer now that there are fewer full-time housewives, but still. I think what gives me a macabre sense of fascination about both Wifey and Valley of the Dolls is that they’re almost like romances that kept going, after the HEA…and revealed that the happily didn’t last for ever after. More like, Happily For a While, Until Everything Went to Shit, As it Sometimes Does, Kid, Sorry.

From the back cover copy:

Wifey is tired of chicken on Wednesdays and sex on Saturdays.

It’s the ultimate bored housewife book.

Sandy and Norman have been married for twelve years, and over time his dispassion and king-of-the-castle perfectionist expectations have taken their toll on her. We meet Sandy when she’s on the brink of a mental break. She’s tired and beat down, energy sucked out by a listless marriage and a string of psychosomatic illnesses.

Page 9
“Oh, San, for God’s sake.” He tried to put his arms around her but she brushed him away. “You’re so damn touchy these days,” he said. “I can’t even talk to you any more.”
Any more? Sandy thought. But she didn’t say it.
As soon as she heard the back door close she picked up a plate and flung it across the kitchen. It smashed into tiny pieces. She felt better.

Page 19
Sandy waited until the first commercial, then went back to the kitchen and marked Banushka’s chart. Banushka’s chart had been Norman’s idea. He’d recorded every pee and crap the dog had taken since they’d brought him home from the kennel, four years ago. When the children were born Norman had insisted that Sandy keep charts for them too. Careful records of their temperatures and bowel movements, with the appropriate descriptions, exactly as his mother, Enid, had kept for him when was a boy. […] He and Enid still discussed bowel movements and their bathroom cupboards were filled with disposable Fleet enema bottles, just in case.

Page 181
All her life she had let others decide what was going to happen to her. Maybe now it was time to please herself. Call her own shots. She laughed out loud, remembering the two times she had made her own decisions; to vote for Kennedy and to name her baby Jennifer. Two times in thirty-two years that her decision was not based on someone else’s feelings, someone else’s choice.

Page 189
It was true that Norman worked hard and provided well for her and the children. So, was she wrong to want more out of life? She wasn’t sure anymore. A good wife wouldn’t complain. If he beat her, she could complain. If he drank, she could complain. If he ran around, she could complain. But Sandy had no real reason to complain. Not an acceptable reason, anyway. Nobody loves a kvetch, Mona had said. Remember that, Sandy…especially not a man who’s worked hard all day.
I’m sorry, Mother.
I’m sorry, Norman.
I’m sorry, everybody.

Sandy’s unhappy and dissatisfied, miserable and lost, yet awfully lovable. Actually quite funny and charming. And terribly horny.

She’s horny for just about every man who passes by, she’s so starved for affection. She fantasizes about her high school sweetheart and the flasher who keeps turning up on her front lawn and masturbating wearing nothing but a motorcycle helmet. About the plumber, about her friend’s husband, about her sister’s husband, about a cabana boy at a Jamaican resort, about her golf instructor and the veterinarian…

But maybe it’s only fair. Norman’s got secrets of his own.

Page 244
Jesus, you think you know someone and then…
She’d ask him tonight. She’d say, Norman, who is Brenda Partington Yvelenski?
And he’d say, Why do you ask?
And she’d say, Because you gave her five thousand dollars.
And he’d say, How do you know that?
And she’d say, Because this afternoon, as I was about to kill myself, I found the canceled check in the gun cabinet.
And he’d say, You have one hell of a nerve reading my canceled checks!

Sandy doesn’t succeed in killing herself, though she does give it some thought, including thinking the bathroom was best, as the clean-up would be easiest for whomever found her, but then she worries she’d screw it up, wind up a vegetable and be a burden to everyone, and chickens out. But Sandy does eventually succeed in sleeping around behind her husband’s back, more than once, with varying results. She even plots to get a divorce and run away with one of the men, and the way the book and its heroine are written…you’re just about rooting for her to get away with it. Miserable creature she may be, but it’s hard not to like her, even as you ride along, watching her mess up her life.

Page 263
She waited until after dinner, until they were both seated in the den, Norman reading the paper, Sandy with her needlepoint spread out on her lap, the TV tuned in to some variety show, a summer replacement, before saying what she had to say. “Norman, I’d like to talk to you.”
“Go ahead.”
“Will you put down the paper, please, this is important…”
“I can read and listen at the same time.”
“Norman, I’ve got gonorrhea.”
“Uh huh…” He turned the page.
She raised her voice. “I said I’ve got gonorrhea!”

I’d love to hear other people’s memories of discovering Wifey, whether they did so when it came out, or a bit tardily, as I did. In this age when kinky erotica’s gone mainstream and reality shows offer endless peeks into the trainwreckishly boring lives of non-fictional privileged people, I don’t think there could be a Wifey. Not one that makes waves the way the book did in its time. The bar for scandal’s been set far too high since the late seventies, for better or worse…

Though it is awfully good fun to play tourist in that era for a few hours, thumbing through one’s dusty old copy of Wifey.

About Cara McKenna

Cara McKenna writes smart erotica—sexy stories with depth. Read more >
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7 Responses to Book Report: Wifey (1978)

  1. Huzzah for nostalgia wonk! I remember my mom used to hide Erica Jong’s “Fear of Flying” up on top of the refrigerator. I have to wonder why, since all three of us kids knew perfectly well that chapter two (or was it three?) was titled, “The Zipless Fuck”. The seventies were such a cracktastic time for books aimed at women. I think Judy Blume was very brave, and probably doesn’t get enough credit. Think of all the memorable, iconic stories she’s crafted. Schlock it may be in some sense, but it sticks with you.

    I confess I’ve never read Wifey. Now I feel a trip to Half-Price Books coming on…

  2. Ruthie Knox says:

    I’ve never read it either, but now I want to! Nor have I read Valley of the Dolls (but Island of the Dolphins — yes, yes, a thousand times yes).

    Do you ever get the impression that the Seventies were obsessed with enemas? I do.

    But on to more substantive themes — Is the Jennifer line supposed to be funny? Because of course, every other housewife named her baby Jennifer, too. Maybe that’s only a joke in retrospect.

    I call first dibs on your copy.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      My copy is yours! If only I could send you shortbread cookies to go with it, Miss No Sugar 2012…

      And no, the Jennifer line isn’t meant to be funny. It was a triumph because Sandy succeeded in standing up to her mother-in-law’s pressuring that the baby be given a nice, traditional Hebrew name. Then when the mother-in-law is told the baby’s named Jennifer she says, “Oh God, oh God, I feel weak. Think I might faint.” Then she insists on addressing the child as “Sarah” for the rest of the book.

  3. willaful says:

    I did read it, but it kind of blurs in my mind with dozens of other books of similar theme I read. For some reason, as a young adult I always seemed to find discontented housewife books. No wonder I was so nervous about getting married.

    “I mean, how many of us have only slept with one person, the one we marry?” I only know one — my husband! He told this teenage boy about that once, and Boy thought it was wonderfully romantic. Boy’s mother was utterly aghast. ;-)

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Of my peers, I only know of one such couple—high school sweethearts, been together…jeez, must be like sixteen years now, married for the past nine. Both have only been with each other, as far as I know. They are a rare breed! I know of more such cases in my mom’s generation…at least, the women had only been with one man, the one they married. Not sure how much more acceptable it was for the husbands to play around before they settled down. Substantially more, I suspect! [shakes fist at stud/slut double-standards]

  4. Amber says:

    Oh my god, that sounds fan-freaking-tastic. No, I’ve never read it. I think I once saw Valley of the Dolls the movie and was very freaked out, but also learned what fingering meant so I called it a win.

  5. Serena Bell says:

    I’m weighing in late to say that I’ve never read it but I probably read Forever a hundred thousand times. I’ve also never read Valley of the Dolls or Fear of Flying, so I have some catching up to do. I did read a very large number of books I snuck off my own parents’ and other people’s parents’ bookshelves, but there seems to be some rule that I can’t remember any of the titles or even covers. Scenes do occasionally jump to mind, often of older women deflowering disturbingly young men. Not sure if those scenes occurred frequently or they just got stuck my brain more than other scenes. Or if maybe they’re just coming back to me at this point in my life for some reason?