I’ve been away from my family for the last few days, staying with friends down in Gloucester. I feel the need to confess my nights have been spent in bed with the Vicar’s Wife.
It was my wife who suggested I should do so actually and was perfectly happy with how I intended to spend my nights. Fair enough. I’m only human and if you’re wife is encouraging you how can you say no? This is especially true considering she’d already enjoyed the Vicar’s Wife herself and thought I’d like to as well.
The Vicar’s Wife is, of course, a novel. Written by Katherine Swartz who happens to live down the road from me, her novel has become required reading in the village where I live and, at times, I could barely move without coming across her name or the book.
“This book is my life,” my wife told me, insisting I had to read it. Knowing I had a few days away coming up I agreed – it would help me go to sleep at night, I thought.
I was wrong.
It will sound quite, quite wrong but I found The Vicar’s Wife horrifying.
Considering this is the simple tale of two women – living in the same house but separated by over seventy years, coping with moving out of lives they loved into stark and completely alien lifestyles – I didn’t expect the book to be so hard-hitting. I expected a trashy romantic novel; I didn’t expect to be left emotionally bewildered.
The two characters – Alice marrying a vicar in the 1930s (the ‘wife’ of the title) and Jane, an American married to a British guy – both struggle with loneliness, lack of identity and one crisis after another. Alice’s life felt almost unbearable and yet it becomes evident, after a while, that though most of the action centres around Jane, it is really Alice’s life which is key to so many and, in a way, saves Jane’s life from self-destruction.
What I found so hard though was the thought processes these two women go through. Suddenly my wife’s words haunted me. Did she really think like this? If I went through these same thoughts on a daily basis as Alice and Jane seemed to, I be put on suicide watch within the week! More than ever, I’m aware of the gulf between the solve-one-box-at-a-time mentality of men and the spaghetti-mess-of-emotions of women. Just how does one half of the world’s population mange to function? I guess both sides can ask that question!
By the time I was halfway through the book I wondered if I was going to be able to finish it. Honestly, rather than ending my day with an easy novel to relax me for sleep, I was lying awake in the dark considering the plight of Jane and the fate of Alice. The easily readable style Swartz adopts lulls you into the tumultuous emotional world of much heavier literature. I’ve recently read Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and that book was lighter in tone than that of Swartz’s novel.
But carry on reading it I did, all the time wondering why all my local female friends ranted and raved about this book. Didn’t they feel as depressed as I did? It’s well written, there’s no doubt of that, but surely it couldn’t help women who were in similar positions? It’s like giving the albums of Pink Floyd or Radiohead to the suicidal to listen to for enjoyment: you just don’t do it.
I still don’t know the answer. I don’t know why my wife said it was the most wonderful book to read and how much comfort she got from it as we adjust to British life again after six years in Asia. The parallels I can see – but not the hope.
And yet, I couldn’t put the book down for the last 70 pages or so and when I turned the final page I too felt a sense of peace, life and hope for the future hinted at by the good women-folk I’d spoken to about it. In fact, when I finished the novel I had the surprising urge to read it again – something unheard of from me vociferously reading masses of books, as I do, and never looking back at any of them once done. I satisfied myself by going over numerous passages and chapters which had impacted on me. I still felt this was a world I barely understood but Swartz successfully drew me into it anyway. Perhaps, my floundering in this world was precisely the point? After all, that’s what Alice and Jane feel in the book…
What’s for certain is that going to bed with The Vicar’s Wife proved to be an emotional roller-coaster ride which left me drained yet…I don’t know…’content’ is completely the wrong word. ‘At peace’ is probably the better way to put it. I certainly found myself wondering if the character of Alice was based on someone who really lived in this village I now call home or if she was entirely the creation of Swartz’s imagination.
If she was real, I’d love to have met her. But not at bedtime, perhaps.
You can buy ‘The Vicar’s Wife’ at Amazon.co.uk here.