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Doing Time

Reviewed by Meg Wolitzer
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page BW07


By Stewart O'Nan

Farrar Straus Giroux. 312 pp. $24

Like Evan S. Connell's classic 1959 novel Mrs. Bridge, Stewart O'Nan's The Good Wife is the story of an ordinary woman's life over a great sweep of time. Connell used short bulletin-like chapters to create a complete vision of his character's circumstances and limitations; O'Nan's chapters tend to be a little longer, but the effect is similar. The accretion of quotidian detail gives us a kind of timeline of the life of Patty Dickerson, a woman whose husband, Tommy, commits a crime while drunk at the beginning of the novel and ends up spending the remainder of it -- 28 years -- in jail for murder. Also like Mrs. Bridge, The Good Wife is powerful, unforgettable.

In the opening scene, pregnant Patty awaits her husband's return from a night out with a friend. She lies in bed reading The Other Side of Midnight, a detail that sets us firmly in the 1970s, just as the mention of various TV shows -- "The Rockford Files," "The Night Stalker," "Hawaii Five-O"- -- does, though the author never dates the scenes explicitly. This light touch is deliberate; time passes for the wife of a convict in a strangely odd and free-form way. The outside world and its march of hairstyles, politics and news barely register. The real time being tracked is the catalogue of days and years of the convict's sentence. Patty is thrust back into the care of her family, where she too becomes trapped. O'Nan is terrific at showing small details of family life in all their awfulness:

"She spends the week before the hearing trying to find something to wear. . . . Her mother wants to lend her an old Easter outfit, navy with cookie-sized white buttons and piping. Patty can't say it's horrible, but manages through her silence to communicate that fact.

" 'Well, I'm sorry,' her mother says. 'I thought I was trying to help but obviously not.' "

Though Patty, soon a single mother, is helped by her difficult family in many ways, what's most striking in this novel is how she repeatedly finds herself isolated. The stink of her husband's crime extends to her, and she is without self-pity. When it becomes clear that Tommy won't be released from prison for a long time, he delicately suggests that she might separate herself from him -- an idea her mother has already tried to encourage. But Patty hangs on. At one point, attracted to a man named Trace, she contemplates a relationship the way a high school girl moons over a crush, but the idea goes nowhere. Patty's yearning and passivity are mixed in with the quiet potency of sticking with what you know. And what she knows, by this point, is being Tommy's wife. So she stays.

Years pass, then decades. Casey, Patty and Tommy's son, grows up to be quiet, uncommunicative and highly intelligent, accompanying his mother week after week to visit his father. Tommy as a father is mostly a concept, and yet the boy is expected to love and know and respect him. Patty treats the abnormal situation as normal, for this is her family, and this is the only way they are able to live.

At one point Tommy is allowed to participate in a "family reunion" program, in which inmates and their families spend a weekend in a trailer at the prison. "The formica's a bright orange, the whole trailer done in a horrible sixties decor like a coffee shop." Casey is brought along: "Patty's plan is to make the evening just like one at home, and runs a bath for him. The tub's short, the rubber flower decals bleached white. She scrubs it with dish soap and scalding water before letting him get in." Reading a book at bedtime, Casey "flips the pages with confidence, but he seems to be going slower than usual, focusing, trying to get every word right. Tommy's properly impressed, nodding at how good he is, but what's even better is seeing Tommy kiss him good night for the very first time."

The physical pleasures and comforts of Patty's life are few. Her menial jobs over the years are grueling or demeaning, right out of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed. O'Nan writes well about poverty and marginality in America. Like Patty, he never calls attention to himself, and his prose is quiet and without histrionics, even though his characters' plight is at times unbearable.

Chapter by chapter, year by year, decade by decade, The Good Wife is the story of how life somehow gets lived even when another day of it seems impossible or far too tedious. A woman wakes up in the morning, makes the long journey to visit her incarcerated husband, celebrates Christmas, roots for one team to win the Super Bowl as if her life depends on it.

Stewart O'Nan knows what Evan S. Connell knew in Mrs. Bridge: that an unassuming woman might be surprisingly complicated. Patty doesn't wrestle with the moral questions of her husband's guilt in the direct way a less subtle writer might have her do. Thoughts about the nebulous nature of his crime and about the lives of the victim's family do occur to her in harshly sad little moments. Patty has fantasies and plans for herself and her family. The title has an ironic sheen to it, for who could possibly be as good as Patty, as even-keeled and patient? But there's another level on which O'Nan is being completely earnest. Patty Dickerson is a wonderful character, and this novel is astonishing. •

Meg Wolitzer's most recent novel, "The Position," has just been published.

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