Greetings, Story366! I have to ask: Is a title story still a title story if the title changes an ampersand to the written-out word “and” from book title to story title? Katie Chase‘s book is titled Man & Wife, but the alleged title story is titled “Man and Wife.” It’s Wednesday here in the world of me, & that’s what’s on my mind.
Really, it’s not, but as I typed the title of this post—the one in the big letters at the top—I did come across this conundrum. Is this some sort of statement about abbreviations? Is it a Post-Modern deconstruction of prepositions? Is it a typo? Am I making too much of this? Yes I am.
In any case, I read a few stories from Man & Wife and admired them for the the sense of innocence, & innocence lost, that Chase is able to fictionalize. “Blood Feud” is about a little war between neighborhood kids, exaggerated, while “Old Maid” is about woman, who’s not that old, coming to grips with the title she’s been given by her friends and neighbors. Chase likes her themes—community politics, societal roles, age expectations—& all can be seen aplenty in the story “Man and Wife.”
“Man and Wife” is about Mary Ellen, a bright and chipper eleven-year-old girl who comes home one day to find that her father has sold her into marriage to a local older man, Mr. Middleton. Dad is overjoyed at the deal he’s struck, while Mary Ellen’s mom tries to explain to Mary Ellen what has happened to her. Mary Ellen, telling the story in first person past tense, is just confused; Chase, before long, reveals the point in time from which this story is told, in the future, Mary Ellen & Mr. Middleton long betrothed. This takes away some of the suspense (Will this really happen?), but still, the story is engaging and intense, as we see the process by which Mary Ellen is prepared for this contract, her emotions as her world changes, completely & forever.
“Man and Wife” has a real 1950s feel to it, the parents coming off as Ward and June-types, Dad in “business” in general, wearing plain suits every day to the “office,” while Mary Ellen’s mom rotates between house dresses as she cooks, cleans, & takes care of Mary Ellen. There aren’t many specific time markers to place this in any particular era—Mary Ellen and her friends do play Barbies—but no cell phones or the like to put this in the twenty-first century as opposed to the late twentieth. The consistency of this system—other girls that Mary Ellen knows have been sold in similar deals—points to an alternate reality, one in which that 50s culture has blown up, taken the next step into conservatism, into wife slavery, into patriarchy run (even more) amok. It’s the perfect setting for this story, the satire more subtle than setting it today; I believed that this world could exist, that it made sense from that Eisenhower/McCarthy-era point of view.
Mary Ellen has the summer to prepare herself for Mr. Middleton. The whole thing smells a bit (intentionally, I’m guessing) of Eliot’s Middlemarch—I half-expected Mr. Middleton to be working on the key to all mythologies. He’s is a quiet, mousey guy, while Mary Ellen seems like she could break every glass ceiling on her trajectory, given the opportunity. She’s not. To break this bond would mean financial ruin for her family, & since both parents support the union—Mom less so, but she was an arranged bride herself and learned to adapt—it’s not like she’d have anywhere to go. Most of the story, then, is Mary Ellen coming to grips with her reality as she is taught what will be expected of her. She learns to cook. She has to give up her friends & her Barbies. She has to learn what sex is (which is done subtly, Chase wisely avoiding anything too graphic). She has to face the fact that after her marriage, the next time she visits her family, she’ll be up in the kitchen, sipping tea with her mother, while her father and husband speak of manly things in the den. As the clock winds down, Mary Ellen gets more and more anxious.
I’ll not go any further into the plot, as I don’t want to spoil things. There is a really great, intense scene—actually, two—involving Mary Ellen & Mr. Middleton, alone together for the first and second times, a couple of climaxes that generously add to the stakes, to the depth, to the strangeness of the story, of the world in which it takes place. As weird & creepy as the story was before, both of these scenes, particularly the first, sent extra shivers up my spine.
I enjoyed all the stories I’ve read from Man & Wife, Katie’s chases debut collection and book. It’s a really solid introduction to this writer and I hope to finish it soon. I recommend you get a copy & read the great stories inside.