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The Custom of the Country
Edith Wharton, Linda Wagner-Martin
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Leo Tolstoy, Louise Maude, Alymer Maude


Wifey - Judy Blume

The naked man in full erection who arrives on Sandy’s lawn, like the Ghost of Christmas Future, does indeed “point” the way, as his actions are both metaphoric and prophetic. From her bedroom window, Sandy watches the man, who discards the sheet initially draped over him, masturbates, and then leaves on a motorcycle. He knows she is watching, and she knows he knows. Though the scene is charged with sexual tension, it is at a remove and both inexplicable and random.

It’s hard to know what Judy Blume hoped to accomplish with this foray into adult literature. Although the book has elements of romance fiction, it’s no bodice ripper. While there are moments of cultural commentary, it is a not a serious novel. Though Sandy’s desire to escape from her affluent suburban life deadened by dull friends and an even duller husband is evident, the book lacks the feminist heft of The Awakening or even Diary of a Mad Housewife, a book referenced in the novel.

Within this generic mishmash, parts of the book reminded me of other literature. Early on, Sandy daydreams that her husband has died. Like the woman in Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour,” who has just learned of her husband’s death, Sandy guiltily contemplates what Norman’s death would mean: “Free, free, free. She’d never been free, could only imagine what it might be like.”

After Sandy’s sister, Myra, and her husband, Gordon, have their home in Jamaica burglarized and are threatened with physical danger, they flee back to New Jersey, and create a Jamaican-like “wooded paradise out of their bare acre lot” which conceals an intricate alarm system. Here, though, there is the illusion of safety. Like the characters in Nadine Gordimer’s chilling short story, “Once Upon a Time,” Myra and her husband, Gordon, seek to wall out real life, pretending it doesn’t exist. Similarly, the book presents a clear-eyed view of “white flight,” and the economic excuses whites used to cloak their racism.

Though the book has interesting elements that could have been developed further, Blume dithers. Sandy’s actions, like those of her masturbating visitor, are sexually motivated, but random and inexplicable. Sandy recoils when Norman calls her “wifey” on their wedding night, but she acts diminutively, like a little girl. She’s dissatisfied with Norman’s stolid demeanor and his mechanical approach to sex, and she’s dissatisfied with her life. Yet she does little to make any changes, and throughout the book, is acted on rather than acting. Sex comes to her: the masturbating man on the lawn, the man whispering in her ear, the unbidden advances of Gordon (who, as her gynecologist, has admired her little pussy for some time!), and the return of Shep, the man she thinks she should have married.

*Spoiler alert*

Though the book is loosely constructed throughout, the rapid and disjointed unraveling at the end of the book prompt a reader to wonder if Blume just lost her mind. Out of the blue, Sandy contemplates suicide, with a gun no less. Then—on seeing Gordon, whom she retained as her gynecologist post-affair (eww!), she learns her sexual awakening has resulted in gonorrhea, and all partners need to be informed. Including Norman.

The upshot? Some sturm and drang, but the book ends on a touching note. Sandy’s going to shave her cute little pussy, and Norm will try to be more adventuresome. The masturbating motorcyclist appears one last time, but Sandy has the feeling he won’t be back.

…Judy, you should have stuck with Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing and Superfudge.