Take small mouthfuls of food, like a baby bird, and make sure to chew daintily with your mouth closed.
Emma Chapman’s How To Be A Good Wife, a tense, claustrophobic psychological thriller, is punctuated by such glimmering diamonds of 1950’s marital etiquette. I felt an instant kinship upon seeing this- I remember copying similar advice into the margins of feminist zines I wrote as a teenager, in my very best curly penmanship, with tiny stars and exclamation points for proper emphasis. On any topic, the advice always amounted to the same thing: shrink yourself. Quiet your voice to be pleasant to his ears, shrink your personality so as not to outshine his own, shrink your waistline, quell your desires, stop wanting, stop needing. Stop existing.
When we meet Marta Bjornstad, she has bought into the propaganda, fish hook and line, in her perfect gleaming home where nothing is ever out of place. But we quickly realize something is horribly amiss, the cracks in the veneer rapidly widening to show the rot beneath.
I don’t like to give spoilers in reviews, but I think with this book, the most fascinating aspects can’t be discussed without a bit of spoiling. At the same time, I feel like the “secret” at the heart of the book isn’t particularly meant to come as a huge revelation to anyone but the protagonist herself.
After twenty years lived behind a gentle, medicated fog, Marta stops taking her happy pills. From the first appearance of a young blonde girl in the flood of hallucinations and memories that follow, I think any savvy reader will begin to sense where this tale will lead. To a dark place beneath the doorstep, a tiny hidden room with the stench of desperation and the furniture nailed to the floor.
It’s a sparse, interesting study of captivity, and hits on the question often asked when children who have been taken are found years later, often fully acclimated to their new lives and even unaware that they had been kidnapped: Why didn’t they run away? From the psychological studies I’ve read, it’s shocking how little time it takes to completely strip a person of their identity, through isolation and fear.
So when someone such as Marta begins to emerge from this state, to try to find her way back to her true self, how difficult it must be to trust her own thoughts and emotions. How easily dismissed those same thoughts and memories would be by everyone around you.
In the end, the book is actually less about the salacious, television version of captivity and more about the strange sort of confinement that marriage and motherhood entail for all women. The sacrifices women make for the happiness of others. The way we are taught even now that indulgence and selfishness are sins, that we must care for the future and happiness of our families no matter what the cost to ourselves. That not existing is preferable to living too loudly or venturing onward and beginning again.