Wife in the North, by Judith O'Reilly

>> Friday, September 17, 2010

TITLE: Wife in the North
AUTHOR: Judith O'Reilly

COPYRIGHT: 2008
PAGES: 295
PUBLISHER: Penguin

SETTING: Contemporary Northern England
TYPE: Memoir
SERIES: None

REASON FOR READING: My book club's choice for September

When Judith O’Reilly, a successful journalist and mother of three, agreed to leave London for a remote northern outpost, she made a deal with her husband that the move was a test-run to weigh the benefits of country living. In the rugged landscape of Northumberland County, O’Reilly swapped her high heels for rubber boots and life-long friends for cows, sheep, and strange neighbors.

In this tremendously funny and acutely observed memoir, O’Reilly must navigate the challenges and rewards of motherhood, marriage, and family as she searches for her own true north in an alien landscape. Her intrepid foray into the unknown is at once a hilarious, fish-out-of-water story and a poignant reflection on the modern woman’s dilemma of striking the right balance between career and family.
Wife in the North is based on a blog the author kept when she moved with her family from London to the middle of nowhere in Northumberland. Our narrator (I decided quite early that I was going to treat this as fiction, otherwise any review I did was going to feel too personal) is a successful journalist who loves her life in London completely, but her husband's dream has always been to live in the country. When he finds the house of his dreams, a small cottage in the Northumberland countryside, she agrees to give it a go and try living there for a while. So there she is, heavily pregnant with her third child, with the two others both under 4, in a place where she knows no one and with a husband who ends up spending weeks upon weeks in London working. She is MISERABLE.

I read some 100 pages (about a third of the book), and then just couldn't bear to go on. It wasn't that I wasn't in the mood for it, or that the writing voice didn't agree with me (although I did find some of it unbearably pretentious), or that I found it hard to get into it. It was that I absolutely and completely hated it. I found it depressing and I disliked every single character.

The plot read like my worst nightmare (and bear in mind, I live in the North myself, so I have no objection to that part of it, per se). It'll sound weird, but this book reminded me most of all of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. This woman has been living a thoroughly modern life, with a job she enjoys in a city she loves, with friends who are a family to her and a husband who's a lover but also a partner. And then her world suddenly changes and pretty much goes back to the 1950s. Her marriage stops being a partnership and the husband starts disregarding her feelings and opinions. She's stuck at home, her identity reduced to wife and mother. Nothing wrong with that if it's what you want to do, but this woman hates it. She remembers what it was like to have that old life she loved, and mourns.

I could simply have felt sorry for her and rooted for her happiness. I didn't. I found her as unpleasant as I found her selfish pig of a husband. She is terribly passive-aggressive. So she's allowed herself to be pressured into doing something she doesn't want to do and is now unhappy. Well, she can either change her circumstances, since she hates them so much, or she can decide to make the best of things. She does neither. She just whines and punishes her husband in little ways (like the way she'd get so angry with him whenever she ran out of petrol - get your own fucking petrol, woman!). She revels in her unhappiness, and in making sure her husband knows it. But when he tells her "look, clearly this experiment isn't working out. You're unhappy here, we'll call it off and go back to London", she pretends everything is fine. Idiot.

I don't know what happens next. She probably does get on with things and learn to enjoy her new life. I just didn't care, and refused to spend any more time with these people to find out.

MY GRADE: A DNF, but the bits I read were an F. On the plus side, it did spark a very interesting discussion when my book club met.

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