With one foot in the past and one in the present, Marcie Maxfield compiled a stunner of a novel. As the narrator, Em, embraces and decries marriage and motherhood while she and her children follow her husband around the world, the resulting chapters make for an entertaining and emotional read.
It doesn’t take long to see the strains and cracks in Em and Gee’s marriage. Set up a bit like the connected stories of Olive Kitteridge but told in a more seamless manner, Maxfield spectacularly sets up scenes—the emotions and the tension and the inevitable fallout to come—crafting spot-on metaphors and allowing Em the tangents that will land like the wallop she surely wished she could deliver straight to her husband’s face. First, it follows the last time Gee goes alone (it’s just 11 months he keeps reminding her) to Japan and Em tries to reach him, in the middle of the night his time, to deliver a message she’s been given by her mother-in-law to have Gee call her. She does her best, while at work and later at home with the baby, to do so, to no avail. Finally Gee calls Em back, full of reasons why he was unavailable, asking what was so important. Em, exhausted, simply says, “Your grandfather died. Call your mother.” And the chapter ends.
The following chapter titled “Lightbulbs” was one I had to read parts of aloud to my own husband in order to drive home why I, like Em, deign to keep our husbands around:
“The one thing—the only thing—that I did not do was change the lightbulbs…. As months went by and more lights went out, I switched to candles. I thought it was a romantic gesture. Marking time. Gee came home, opened the front door, flipped the light switch in the hall, and the first thing out of his mouth was, ‘Jesus, Em, can’t you even change a fucking lightbulb?’ He did not think it was romantic. He took it like a dig, like I was throwing it in his face that he hadn’t been around to do household chores. Like I was pointing out how long he had been gone. What he didn’t understand was that I was holding space for him. Because yeah, sure, I could change the lightbulb— I could do everything, all of it: take care of the baby, hold down a job, touch myself before I fell asleep—but if I went to Home Depot, came back with a bag of bulbs, got the ladder out of the garage, carried it into the apartment, and change the lightbulbs, too, how would I know I was still married?”
It’s one of the best metaphors for marriage I’ve ever read and it’s certainly one to remember. These modern women, both Em and I, like her mother mentions, we want to “have it all” and we can. We can be ultra-independent. Choosing to commit to being a wife now usually includes more than it did for our grandmothers. We’re going to expect more than a warm body in the bed next to us after a long day. There has to be some balance of effort between partners otherwise the circular arguments will repeat forever until one resents the other enough to stop fighting back or walks away for good.
What is perhaps the most interesting part of Em’s experience isn’t really the expat lifestyle that allows the family to live in so many countries, no, I enjoyed how relatable she is, how mad she is, how honest she is about her deteriorating relationship with Gee and how (spoiler!) despite knowing he cheated in Japan, despite how little they even have a life together anymore, despite him working constantly, prioritizing only his job and not his family—how through everything, she stays with him. And though her lacking a means to support herself and the kids without Gee’s income certainly factors into that decision, becoming a “tagalong” wife for decades puts ever larger gaps in her résumé, making independent financial security that much more of a reach. She could have given up and figured out a way to survive without him, but instead she continues to be what he needs her to be. And she knows exactly what she’s doing.
Over and over Em says as an aside that she did not sign up for this kind of marriage: being a full-time working mom during his first assignment away from home, to being a full-time mother in countries she cannot easily get around in or even speak the language, unable to lose (aka find) herself in fulfilling work. All of that is behind her by the time she gets the reader to the present, their latest adventure, as empty-nesters this time, in China.
Em spends the book pre-China reflecting on how she got to where she did with Gee, recounting their relationship from the beginning. Women are expected to make the sacrifices she does for him. But in fiction it’s become more and more unexpected for the wife/mother to fight against the tethers holding her in place and NOT run away. Her resilience is plentiful. Her endurance garnered all of my respect.
I wondered, by the end, if she had to have the marriage she did, to make the choices she made, sometimes to rebel and flirt with an affair of her own, sometimes to keep her head down and focus on being the best mother she could be, in order to find her own passion and her voice, to find her own place in the life she’d been allowed alongside her husband’s. By looking backward in time, Em is reaching out her own hand to the reader, to guide them through her own rage and insecurity and melancholy. From my point of view it was easy to not only sympathize but valorize Em. Gee isn’t the villain of this story, though. If there had to be one it could be the societal expectations placed on marriage in general but wives in particular, and how we are expected to reach certain milestones or be shamed for daring to step out of line.
“A woman without a career is like a fish without headphones. It’s not really a dilemma, is it? Especially if that woman is married with kids – oh, for God’s sake, isn’t that enough? Greedy little bitch wants everything. Marriage, kids, and a career. Well, yeah, that was the promise, but the promise turned out to be not so much a fantasy as a set up for failure, so now the women’s magazines, the tied-up-with-a-bow online articles, are saying that you can still have everything, just not at the same time. Sequentially. Only nobody says that to men.”
When Em is questioning whether to stay in the marriage, she says, “I wasn’t keeping this thing a secret, holding it close, or sweeping it under a rug, like my mother-in-law wished I had the common decency to do. It was out there, bleeding and belching and vomiting all over anyone who would listen. Here’s what everyone said: it doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you.” Gee attends one session of marriage counseling and bails, but they get through the time she refers to as the “Decade of Hate” by forcing Gee to get his family to help them buy a house. She also officially gives up the music job she loves to uproot their growing family and go with Gee this time, to South Korea.
Though there were moments where I greatly disliked Gee for his callousness and/or his oblivious nature (as well as Em for not demanding he be better), I found the realness of the up-and-down nature of their relationship to be rather wonderful. He dismisses her fear of the possibility of sharks in the water while they’re on vacation and she has to self-soothe. He straddles condescension and gaslighting by telling Em to give it more time (it being anything from the terrible air quality in Shanghai, to the mildewy weather in Daejeon). The truth is, he, the sole breadwinner, doesn’t have time for her very real concerns. It all seems to come to a head after a few months into living in Shanghai when Em can’t keep herself healthy, with several smallish problems cropping up back to back to back. One could argue that her symptoms are the physical manifestations of the struggles she’s felt with Gee and her overall lack of satisfaction with herself finally coming out because the children are grown up and Em must confront who she is now.
When she’s called out by her best friend and her teenage daughter who separately ask Em how she’s okay with giving up so much and never getting what she wants, it was surprising that this oft crass character says to her friend that, well, she’s good at adapting (and moving) and to her daughter, she throws out blind optimism, hoping she’ll thank Em later for the experience of living abroad.
“It’s quite a talent, when you think about it: adaptability. It’s like shape-shifting: where once I was a career woman, now I am functionally illiterate. But you wanna know why I really succeed where so many tagalong wives get derailed? It’s because I’m okay being by myself.”
With every new passport stamp and ‘adventure’ it’s easier to see the Em who Gee wishes he was still married to and the Em who had developed in her place over time. This book is one of the best arguments for showing how a woman can be a multi-hyphenate: a daughter, a mother, a friend, a wife, a lover, a writer, a traveler, a thinker, a badass, a wallflower, a hypochondriac, a success, a failure. She can be everything at once, or different parts of herself to different people, and she can and will continue to grow. She is a pro at adapting, after all. And life’s supposed to be about the journey right? Well Em had had some big potholes that hindered her experience on the road-called-life but she has also had… some awful good fortune along the way. I’d ride with her again anytime.
Em’s Awful Good Fortune
By Marcie Maxfield
240 pages. 2021.