Literary Wives is an on-line book club that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Every other month, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind:
What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!
- Ariel at One Little Library
- Emily at The Bookshelf of Emily J.
- Kay at What Me Read
- Lynn at Smoke & Mirrors
- Carolyn at Rosemary & Reading Glasses (on break)
- Cecilia at Only You (on break)
- Audra at Unabridged Chick (on break)
The Disobedient Wife by Annika milisic-Stanley
Goodreads synopsis: Two Women, Two Wives, Two Lives…
The Disobedient Wife intertwines the narratives of a naïve, British expatriate, Harriet, and that of her maid Nargis, who possesses an inner strength that Harriet comes to admire as their lives begin to unravel against a backdrop of violence and betrayal.
Through Harriet’s journal, we see Tajikistan through the eyes of an ex-secretary and diplomat’s wife. She is blissfully unaware of the underground Islamism that threatens the stability of the iron regime and ignorant to the hardships that face the ordinary people in her employ.
By contrast, Nargis is a young, single mother supporting two children and elderly parents, tainted by scandal for leaving her abusive second husband. Harriet helps her start a business and Nargis starts to lift herself out of poverty, only to face new obstacles, becoming entangled with drug traffickers who threaten her life…
Rich with sense of place and deeply humane, Milisic-Stanley brings the acute observation of an artist and social anthropologist to bear on this moving and compelling story of how two women survive and thrive in difficult circumstances.
I have to confess – judging the book by its title, I didn’t expect this book to have so much depth and to be so good. (I should know by now not to judge books by their titles, right?)
What I liked:
The setting: I knew next to nothing about Tajikistan before reading this book. I learned about some of its history, geography, politics, conflicts and how all this has created the condition of the country as it is today. Tajikistan and its people are a big part of this story.
Harriet: Harriet is absolutely unlikable. Her behavior is selfish and cringe-worthy. At first. And her friends are even worse. Together they form a little triangle of negative energy buzzing from one to another, feeding off of each other. They complain about their terrible lives, giving them an excuse to over-drink and over-eat, while their nannies take care of the children.
BUT. Over time, Harriet learns more and more about her nanny, Nargis, and the impoverished conditions she lives in. Harriet is shocked by what she finds out. She begins to feel more sympathy for her as she learns about some of the reasons why Nargis lives the way she does; what has gone on in her past. These revelations help Harriet to come out of herself and think about someone else.
AND. At the end of most chapters we are privy to Harriet’s thoughts about herself and her life; thoughts of isolation and loneliness. This helps us to see that she is not as bad as she seems; she’s lonely and depressed and at the end of her rope. Over time, we see these consuming thoughts about herself lessen as she writes more about Nargis. She also goes from talking about Nargis as a lowly and untrustworthy employee to recognizing her as a brave, strong woman who she would like to count as a friend.
Whenever I feel frightened of the future, uncertain of whether I can manage alone, I think of her. What would Nargis not be able to do in Britain? What could she not achieve without tradition and poverty holding her back? Her trials were so much worse than anything I have had to face, yet she prevails.
Nargis: Could I ever be as brave and strong as Nargis? I don’t think so. I think I would have crumbled long ago if I were in her shoes. Her first husband died, she left her second husband because he was abusive, which brought shame upon herself and her family. She lives in a one room hovel with her parents and her two older children. Her baby was taken from her by her husband’s family, and she can only see him periodically, mostly because she has to work so much but also because she is terrified of running into her husband. She lives silently with all of this every day, while working for Harriet and listening to her complain about her seemingly easy and lucrative life.
Lying in the darkness, she reflected on Faisullo growing up with those grey, tired people, alone in the stuffy air of that hated apartment. How will he understand my abandonment when he grows up? She thought of Ahmed, gone these last four years. Why didn’t I insist he went to a doctor earlier? She pondered on the damage done to Hussein who had never recovered after living with Poulod, frightened to speak up, preferring to blend into the crowd, suffering from terrible nightmares from which he woke up pale and trembling…. She was to blame for all of it. How stupidly she had lived her life.
BUT. As Harriet smartens up, the two women tentatively become friends of a sort. The dynamic between the two and the outcomes of this shifting relationship is what I loved most about the book.
And now for the husbands…
What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
Harriet: Harriet thought being an expat wife would be exciting. But she quickly found out that it can be isolating and lonely. You leave your family and friends behind and hope that you’re able to make new friends. At the very least you should be able to count on your partner for love and support, right? But Henri works all the time. And he believes that as long as Harriet has all the material things she needs and enough money to pay for help with the kids and meals out with her friends then she should be happy and grateful. But it doesn’t work that way, and Harriet finds herself wondering what happened to the man she married.
Harriet and Henri do not have an equal relationship; Henri is in control over what they do and when they do it. He is against leaving Tajikistan even though Harriet begs him after they almost lose their daughter to an illness and an ill-equipped hospital. He also continually tells her not to treat the servants like friends or they will take advantage of her; even try to steal from her. This makes her wary of Nargis at first, until she does decide to go against Henri’s wishes and get more involved in Nargis’s life.
I don’t know if I can be alone. I am so accustomed to being told what to do and where to go by him. I hate myself as I write that sentence.
Henri basically just wants to have the much younger trophy wife who stays at home and has his children, while he works and goes on business trips and has affairs.
They had nannies and other servants, he could not see what she was making such a fuss about. All she had to do is get pregnant and give birth, I handle everything else, he thought indignantly.
Nargis: In Tajikistan a woman is still owned by her husband, and it is very hard to leave a man without it ruining your reputation. If you have children together, the husband’s family have the right to keep them if the wife leaves. Nargis was fortunate in her first husband – they married for love and had a happy life until he got sick and died. Nargis was heart-broken and not thinking straight when her parents convinced her to marry Poulod. It was a rare thing for a widow with two children to be given another chance at marrying. So she agreed.
“You are too soft, Nargis,” she said sternly. “All husbands hit their wives, especially when they find out they are cheating on them. And they deserve it too. You know the old saying. My mother used to repeat it over and over when I came to her weeping in the early days of marriage: ‘Nobody beats a good wife who is obedient.'”
Poulod turned out to be nasty and possessive. He hated that she was still grieving her first husband, and that her son looked just like him. He abused all of them. On the day she left, he tried to stop her with a pair of scissors, landing her in the hospital. Despite the fact that they have left, Nargis still lives in fear for herself and for her children. Things get worse when Poulod starts to do some drug smuggling for the local mafia, and he wants Nargis to get in on it, too. Now, she must find a way to save their lives.
Both women in the book feel trapped and helpless because of their husbands; Nargis is more physically threatened while Harriet is more emotionally and mentally trapped. It would be unrealistic to expect everyone to live happily-ever-after, but the end offers much hope for both women in the form of freedom from their husbands.