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How much have society’s expectations really changed for wives? Karma Brown’s novel, Recipe for a Perfect Wife, follows two suburban New York women whose domestic lives have a lot in common, despite being separated by more than 60 years.
Alice and Nellie
Alice Hale quits her high-powered public-relations job when her husband, Nate, convinces her to move to a fixer-upper in the suburbs of New York City. Nate sees the move as the perfect opportunity to start having children. But the transition is not going well for Alice. She’s ostensibly working on a book, but she’s missing everything about her former life in New York City. She’s also on the fence about whether she’s ready for motherhood. As she figures out her next steps, she stumbles upon the cookbook of the home’s prior occupant, Nellie Murdoch, in the basement. Alice becomes intrigued with the recipes and with Nellie herself.
Nellie is the seemingly perfect 1950s housewife: cultivating a beautiful garden, and gifted with both culinary skills and an attractive and hardworking husband, Richard. Each chapter alternates between the lives of these two women and their lives in the same home. Alice’s chapters start with advice from 20th-century housewife manuals, while Nellie’s chapters start with her recipes, presumably from her cookbook.
With the help of her new neighbor friend, Alice starts digging into Nellie’s life, finding hints of a darker, more tragic side. In the process, Alice realize that her own seemingly happy marriage has fault lines, with secrets between her and Nate.
At its core, the book explores the concept of the perfect wife through the intertwined narratives of Alice and Nellie, who are separated by more than half a century. Brown’s inclusion of quotations from housekeeping manuals helps to underscore the many real expectations that society has had about wives, such as keeping your husband happy at all costs and being subservient to his sexual needs.
Nellie is practically Betty Friedan’s housewife in The Feminine Mystique, excelling at all the arts of the home as well as being the obedient housewife. While Alice lives more than 60 years later and some societal mores have changed, such as women working outside of the home, the notion of the “good wife” still emerges and frustrates Alice. Without her job, she finds herself pulled along by her husband’s desires, like moving to a suburb away from her beloved NYC and career, and the mounting pressures from her husband and family to have a child. These changes shatter her idea of herself, and she feels adrift. No one seems to understand why she might not be happy with her new life, because she “should feel lucky” to be able to stay at home with such a supportive husband.
But this tale is not about women being held down by the patriarchy. The author cleverly shows how these two women use societal expectations as weapons. They work with the systems of their times to find the lives they want to live in part because the system does not expect the powerless to find power within it. Nellie finds strength and power in her cooking and gardening. Alice uses Nellie’s story to try to wrest back control of her own life as she figures out what she wants and how to get it. Ultimately, it’s a riveting tale of two women finding rebellion within the strictures around their lives.
What, When, Where
Recipe for a Perfect Wife. By Karma Brown. New York. Dutton, December 31, 2019. 336 pages, hardcover. $23.92. Get it here.
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