#LiteraryWives: His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie

Literary Wives is an on-line book group that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Four times a year, 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!

Goodreads synopsis: Afi Tekple is a young seamstress whose life is narrowing rapidly. She lives in a small town in Ghana with her widowed mother, spending much of her time in her uncle Pious’s house with his many wives and children. Then one day she is offered a life-changing opportunity—a proposal of marriage from the wealthy family of Elikem Ganyo, a man she doesn’t truly know. She acquiesces, but soon realizes that Elikem is not quite the catch he seemed. He sends a stand-in to his own wedding, and only weeks after Afi is married and installed in a plush apartment in the capital city of Accra does she meet her new husband. It turns out that he is in love with another woman, whom his family disapproves of; Afi is supposed to win him back on their behalf. But it is Accra that eventually wins Afi’s heart and gives her a life of independence that she never could have imagined for herself.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

I enjoyed this book – I found it unpredictable and it gave me a lot to think about. I had fallen for the family’s claims that Muna was “no good” – that she was an alcoholic and a bad mother. I can see how another reader might have seen what was coming, but I was genuinely surprised when Afi found out that Muna was ‘normal’. Eli’s family had just been trying to control who he married. They wanted him to be with someone they approved of. The interesting thing about this, is that it made me sympathize with Eli and Muna as well as with Afi. But I also have to ask how a mother has such a strong hold on her grown children? Family dynamics are very different over here.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

In this book, being a wife is not about falling in love and becoming equal life partners with someone; it’s about being told by your parents that this man or woman will make a good match for you and your family. It’s about families as much as it is about two individuals. After pressure from her mother, Afi agreed to marry Eli without ever having met him. Afi knew about Muna but was told she was no good, and Eli just needed a little nudge in the right direction. After they were married, and he had a beautiful wife like Afi whom his family approved of, he would forget all about Muna. But that’s not what happened. And, because Afi did not want to be shared with another woman, she became unhappy, and–when she saw that Muna wasn’t going anywhere–she asked for a divorce. As unhappy as this made Eli–at this point Eli and Afi had a son–Afi stuck to her decision.

Muna is just as much Eli’s wife as Afi is. She has already been with him for years, just not officially. She is not considered good enough to marry, according to Eli’s family, so must stay in the background as the “other woman”, even though she was his first.

Then there’s Evelyn, Richard’s mistress. Evelyn speaks flippantly about her relationship with Richard, because she knows she would never be approved by his family to be his wife. She just accepts this as fact and adjusts her life accordingly, while Afi is more of a fighter. When Afi is pregnant, she threatens to leave Eli if he doesn’t relocate her into the main house in place of Muna.

Afi’s (somewhat scandalous) decision to divorce her husband indicates that, at least for some women, there’s some progress being made in the right direction. Afi wasn’t going to put up with a marriage she wasn’t happy in, and she moves on to focus on her career in fashion as well as her son.

As much as Afi was more independent than some of the other women in the book, she was still a product of her culture and upbringing. Before she discovered she was being lied to about Muna, Afi tried her best to win over Eli and to be a “good wife.” She cooked and cleaned for him, she was afraid of bothering him too much (“nagging”), she wanted to make things easy and comfortable for him. To Eli’s credit, he didn’t expect Afi to cook and clean for him. The pressure to be a “good wife” came more from her mother and mother-in-law.

“That is the life of a wife, especially a wife of a man like Eli,” Aunty said when she surprised me with a call the next day, “If not that woman, there will be another one sniffing around, trying to steal what is yours, and you cannot sit down and let that happen. You have to learn to fight for your husband, never let your guard down. You are lucky that my son is not like other men. But even good men can fall, and women have become desperate in this country, especially those Accra women. There is no time for sleep in marriage.”

That kind of life sounds exhausting, and more like an elaborate game than a marriage.

…marriage shouldn’t be a never-ending competition where you spend your life fighting to be seen and chosen.

What do you think? Do you think Eli deserves any of our sympathy, or should it all go towards the women?

Join us in June for The Harpy by Megan Hunter!

25 thoughts on “#LiteraryWives: His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie

  1. whatmeread says:

    I didn’t have much sympathy for Eli, and I was sympathetic to Afi for a while, but then I felt she ignored all the signs that it was the family interfering for a long while after it was obvious. It’s good that you brought in Richard and Evelyn, because I didn’t think to mention them.

    • Naomi says:

      I figured it was just normal for the family to be so involved. Afi’s Uncle Pious was also annoyingly (and embarrassingly) involved. I also thought that Fred and Richard were friendly enough and more helpful to her than not. However, I don’t think I felt any more sympathy for her than I did for Muna.

      • whatmeread says:

        Maybe, but then there was the point that Uncle Pious didn’t give them a place to live when they needed one, but then kept trying to get them to give him gifts after she was better off. Obviously the second was the norm, but I think I would have wanted to say something to him about his not having upheld custom when they were desperate. However, apparently that would have been too disrespectful. I actually felt more sympathy for Muna, eventually, than for Afi. I was sympathetic to Afi at first, but once she figured out how it really was with Muna, I did not like Afi continuing to try to get rid of Muna. I realize it was a difficult situation, but she knew about it before she got married.

      • Naomi says:

        I agree that once Muna became a “real” person to her (once they’d met face-to-face), I feel like she would have softened her stance a bit. Although, I also get that she still wanted to be the only wife. I still wonder what Muna was thinking… I wish I knew!

  2. A Life in Books says:

    I enjoyed this novel which showed me aspects of a culture I knew little about. No doubt many of us wouldn’t have put up with the marriage Afi found herself in but she didn’t have much choice. I liked the way she found her way to independence despite it all.

    • Naomi says:

      I think, when it comes down to it, the biggest cultural difference I found in the novel are the family dynamics. It’s nice that the families seem to be close-knit, but not so nice that some of them have such power over others. Maybe Afi’s greatest success was getting out from under everyone’s scrutiny!

  3. Rebecca Foster says:

    I’m also glad you mentioned Evelyn. I didn’t think to discuss her either, but she’s a good counterpoint to the central relationship. The mother-in-law was certainly a powerful character! I’d read another Ghanaian novel earlier this year in which arranged marriage and divorce featured heavily, and particularly by comparison, this felt unsophisticated. It’s good that you enjoyed it more than Kay and I did!

    • Naomi says:

      Maybe it’s a reflection of how many Ghanaian books I read – not very many! I really liked reading about the cultural differences. Those same differences, though, also made it hard for me to decide who I had sympathy for and how much of it I had. I kept wondering why everyone was so scared of Aunty – what would have happened if they’d all ignored her? But, I have no idea what that would be like so I can’t really comment on it. Y’know?
      What was the other book called?

  4. Anne Smith-Nochasak says:

    I think this makes us realize that men can be just as trapped by family dynamics as women. My main sympathies tend to be with Muna at this point, but I will have to read the book to be sure.

    • Naomi says:

      I do still wonder *how* it is that he’s trapped. What would happen if he went against his mother’s wishes? Would he be disowned? I don’t think he’d be destitute, because I believe his businesses are his own. Would his siblings disown him as well as his mother? Would she spread nasty rumors about him? I’m curious!

      • Anne Smith-Nochasak says:

        Perhaps he could cut ties with his family and start a new life elsewhere, but it seems he is not ready to do that. When key family members take a stand, often others support them, either vocally or by their silence. This filters beyond the family, to the personal and possibly business community. He does not seem prepared for this level of commitment, and possibly Muna is better off without him.

      • Naomi says:

        That’s true… the influence of the family could be very far and wide.
        Thanks for joining the conversation, Anne!

  5. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    The reviews I’ve read of this just make me irritated feeling (because of the family interference, gender roles, etc) and I don’t know if I could read the book. The cover blurb says it’s “hilarious,” – did you find it funny?

      • Naomi says:

        Everyone’s differing reactions makes the book worth reading! It seems to depend on what you’re expecting to get from the book. I didn’t know what to expect going in, so was happy to go with the flow.

    • Naomi says:

      I didn’t find it hilarious, but the characters’ thoughts and interactions were sometimes amusing. It’s definitely written on the light side rather than the dark. Does that help?

  6. annelogan17 says:

    Hmm this sounds like an interesting read. Like you, I would be a bit taken aback at the cultural differences (marrying an entire family, having a match chosen for you) just sounds so terrible, but alas, many people in this world still live this way, so its important to read books that try to illuminate this.

    • Naomi says:

      That’s the part that’s so interesting. My first instinct is to think it’s so different, but then I remember that for many people it’s just the way it is. And then I wondered why my first instinct is to dismiss polygyny, so I read about it and now I think, what’s the big deal if everyone’s happy?

      • annelogan17 says:

        yes yes, so true! I think many people are quite happy in that situation, and to think of it, if I was part of a huge family with a ton of kids, it would actually be quite helpful LOL

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