“I’m ruining my life,” laments Mel, a character in Carley Moore’s debut novel The Not Wives. “By wanting to fuck guys and by never having enough money.”
Ruining? Well, nothing wrong with lusting after the chef in the restaurant where you bartend, as long as your partner has agreed to try an open relationship. And being broke isn’t Mel’s fault, the novel’s hero Stevie insists: “Everyone I love is broke. I mean, like, just barely okay, and crawling, inching, and scraping along. Artists and people in the helping professions have no extra money and no savings. It’s America!” Along with everyone she loves, Stevie works hard but is broke—she’s in debt and about to lose her home. She’s broken by the loss of her marriage, by the aftermath of childhood abuse, and by the struggle to survive financially. Opening with the suicide of a young woman writer, The Not Wives immediately asks: How do you keep going, in spite of being broken? And what circumstances make it impossible?
Like two other indispensable recent novels, Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry and Sally Rooney’s Normal People, The Not Wives interrogates power, especially the asymmetries of class and gender. In Washington Square Park, where the homeless bathe in the fountain and the rich come to work out, Stevie endures small talk with a wealthy mother, Paige, from the PTA at their kids’ school. “Aren’t you guys usually away in August?” Stevie asks, and Paige complains: “We’re selling our Bridgehampton house and the realtor is showing it like every hour, so we decided to rough it in the hot, sweaty city.” Blind to their differences, Paige orders Stevie to “think outside the box” in donating to the school’s silent auction—a visit with Lady Gaga got the highest bids at last year’s auction. Staring at Paige’s “superwhite teeth,” Stevie thinks, “I wanted to work on my class rage.”
When a law professor tries to befriend Stevie, she’s reluctant to explain her position in the hierarchy of the university:
I didn’t feel like explaining the elaborate class system that made up university life in the twenty-first century. Adjuncts at the bottom, unionized but so broke many were applying for food stamps; contract faculty like Aaron and me, who made just enough money to eke by as long as we had other jobs on the side…; and tenured faculty who made double what we made and had access to faculty housing in the four towers just south of the park, and now apparently this new sliver of luxury condos.
This is the direction things are going in New York, as elsewhere: more luxury for those who already enjoy enormous privilege, less security for those at the bottom. Untenured, in debt, recently separated and about to be divorced, Stevie struggles with anxiety as she tries to meet her responsibilities as a mother, teacher, and friend.
Divorces tend to diminish everyone involved, but the novel suggests that the not wife suffers more: another asymmetry. For Stevie, the shame of being broke, the terror of losing her home, and the sometimes overwhelming responsibility of motherhood are compounded by the loss of a marriage—a loss which, as the title suggests, defines her. Stevie tells her new lover that she’s “just a woman who is no longer a wife. The not wife.” She’s shadowed by the memory of her marriage, and the mistakes that led to its dissolution.
The divorce doesn’t affect her ex-husband Aaron in the same way. In theory, they’ve divided the debt (they owned no property) and the childcare fairly, yet Aaron is apparently thriving while Stevie is terrified and fighting to get by. This asymmetry dates back to the last years of their marriage, when Aaron spent nights out with a community of poets while Stevie stayed home, too exhausted by the strains of work and parenting to join him. Aaron was already more defined by his life in the world than by marriage and fatherhood. He appears to be better off financially and, more crucially, emotionally. He has already moved on to a new relationship; he’s founded a successful writers’ space, attracting young poets and offering free letterpress classes. Stevie, on the other hand, suffers from Aaron’s rejection of her and from guilt over having cheated on him. “Don’t be too hard on yourself,” Stevie’s lover tells her. “Too late for that,” she says.
All three of the novel’s main characters—Stevie, her best friend Mel, and Johanna, a homeless teenager who becomes attached to Stevie—struggle with asymmetries. Johanna is bullied and sexually abused by her boyfriend; Mel is sexually harassed by her boss at the restaurant where she works; Stevie is at the mercy of a heartless dean. So when Johanna, her boyfriend, and a seductive activist named Arturo invite Stevie to Occupy Wall Street, the encampment in Zuccotti Park, she goes.
At Occupy, Stevie can express her class rage rather than swallowing it, as she has to do with Paige: “It felt great to shout in the streets! I loved being part of a giant organism for change.” As part of this living thing, she finds community with other feminists and radical parents, and with Marxists, immigrants, and homeless people (including Johanna and her boyfriend Butch). She is enthralled by the spectacle of the protest, galvanized by the energy of the demonstrators, and even willing to withstand the humiliating ordeal of being arrested. “I don’t think systemic change is always possible,” Stevie says, “but at least when you protest, you feel different and better. You connect with people and you make a change in yourself.” As it turns out, police dismantle Occupy before it can contribute much to systemic change, but the novel enables us to look back at what the movement did accomplish: it fed people and provided them with legal services and educational resources. Occupy isn’t always benign in the novel, though. Even in the encampment, Johanna succumbs to drugs and abusive sex with her boyfriend. And there is a terrifying moment when Stevie’s daughter Sasha disappears, and suddenly Occupy no longer seems like a cozy village. But in the end, the protests make Stevie less afraid, more connected, and fiercer about social justice.
Aside from the freedom to participate in Occupy, there are benefits to becoming a not wife. Stevie’s lover David, whom she affectionately calls “the Wolf,” tells her he wants “Openness. Play. Multiplicity. Nonmonogamy.” She has the freedom to go home with a young woman she meets in a bar, to experiment sexually with the Wolf, to be seduced by a charismatic organizer from Occupy. If being a spouse channels all our energy into one narrow kind of love, being a not wife allows Stevie to be open to multiple kinds of attraction, fascination, and desire: towards friends, comrades in protest, male and female sexual partners. And if being a spouse defines us neatly, being a not wife allows Stevie to adopt multiple identities. Positioned outside of the mainstream, she can be queer, resistant, a radical mother. Stevie’s life has a hectic adventurousness, which wives may well find enviable.
The three main characters share the ambiguous status of “not wife,” though in quite different ways. In spite of her precarious vagabond existence, Johanna is essentially married at the beginning of the novel, bound by love and shared addiction to her boyfriend Butch. In order to find independence and overcome addiction, Johanna must become a not wife and draw away from Butch. Mel’s story follows the opposite arc: when the book begins, Mel’s marriage to her partner Jenny is in question, as they both explore other romantic possibilities. It‘s not clear that Mel and Jenny will remain wives, especially when Mel becomes involved with Carmine, the chef at the Brooklyn restaurant where she tends bar. We want Johanna to become less of a wife to Butch; we find ourselves wishing Mel might become a more committed wife to Jenny.
A traditional novel might have ended with a marriage (or three, one for each female protagonist), but there’s no “happily ever after” here—and that’s the point. As Stevie leaves a divorce mediation session, she reflects on the loss of her home and on the many homes lost in the mortgage crisis: “Domesticity, as we knew it, is dead… Maybe we’ll all form communes in parks and live together forever in new spaces. Maybe we’ll break all of the institutions and that will be okay.” Relinquishing her marriage, Stevie turns to Occupy, with its openness and rejection of hierarchy offering a new kind of home and community.
Domesticity might be dead; wifedom might be dead, too. Maybe as sexuality becomes more fluid—as it does for both Stevie and Mel—marriage and family must become more flexible, too. Maybe the categories “wife” or “not wife” won’t make sense anymore. In her feminist classic Writing a Woman’s Life, Carolyn Heilbrun observed that “lives do not serve as models; only stories do that… We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard.” In The Not Wives, Moore offers us new stories of sexuality, family, and survival. By telling these stories, the novel makes it possible for us to live different lives. In this sense, The Not Wives is itself a courageous form of activism, a push for radical change.
Moore, also a poet and essayist (16 Pills, Tinderbox Editions, 2018), writes with assurance and rueful humor. The tight chapters, which shift among the three storylines, give the book a fast pace, and Moore intersperses them with captivating list-poems about husbands, wives, and children. On wives, for example:
The wives were curious about the lives of other wives. The wives did not care about other wives.
The wives were in detention. The wives were being watched and under surveillance. The wives had perfected the gluten-free cupcake and they had a two-tiered BPA-free cupcake carrier.
And on husbands:
The husbands would never, ever forgive you for cheating. The husbands were cheating too. The husbands loved you so much it hurt.
These list-poems reflect a writer’s impulse to record everything, preserve every story Stevie glimpses in the city. The book’s epilogue resembles these poems, teasing and clever: it enumerates various possibilities for how Stevie and Sasha’s lives unfold, without a decisive answer about what happens. We only know it won’t be boring.
How do you go on when the losses seem unbearable? You just keep “crawling, inching, and scraping along,” as the characters in Moore’s novel do. You make yourself, like Johanna, a not suicide: as much as you might want to jump, you wait just long enough for the police to pull you back from the edge. You stay interested in the stories, caring about the diverse lives that intersect with your own: students, friends, lovers, children, fellow protestors. You keep inventing and reinventing your own life. You write, teach, raise a strong daughter. You protest. And you don’t let being broke break you. After all, everyone you love is broke, too.