Credit: Read, Sav, Read.
Jac Jemc’s My Only Wife was one of my favorite reads so far this year, without a doubt. Through offering readers immaculate characterization, repetition, and insight into relationships, Jemc showcases the obscure fundamentals of human behavior. Interspersed between the hauntingly brilliant, poetic language and character rich narrative are non-linear glimpses into the past relationship still existing in the narrator’s present. Jemc’s characters are complicated and unappealing. Their quirks and flaws make them seem more human than we usually get to know in fiction and in real life, unless we are at an intimate level with a person, like the husband in this novel is speaking from.
Before we see our narrator, his perspective on his wife characterizes him. His frequent use of “my wife” is possessive and intimate, yet distant and foreshadowing. Neither of the two characters was ever named. Neither of the characters loved each other for who they were—they loved the idea of one another, which is something many people experience yet struggle to admit to themselves and others. An example of these expectations and ideals can be found in the following passage: “Today all I wanted was to get you drunk and to learn some deep secret I hated to know about you, so I could tell you mine and make an even trade. All I wanted was to discover that you’d been frightened to tell me something, that there was something you never wanted me to know, but of course you have nothing. You do give every bit of yourself to me and you expect the same of me, and I try, but I still want to grab some things and pack them into my cheeks for some famine when I know I’ll be alone and need them” (Jemc 145).
The fact that the wife, who was the main subject and focus of the book, never received a name other than “my wife” didn’t allow her to be her own separate individual. She was his, not her own. She wasn’t his ex wife as he told this story, even though she actually was. Time had passed and he couldn’t let go, which was apparent in his clinging to that phrase in the hopes his loyalty and obsession would bring her back to him. With the book being so character focused, it lacks the strong sense of setting that we’re typically given in good fiction. I think that this worked because she was his setting; nothing around him mattered to him but the idea of his wife—his only wife. I would struggle to release my grasp on setting, in my own work out of the fear that it wouldn’t work like it did for Jemc’s story, as most all stories need setting.
The wife contradicts herself and only offers her husband glimpses at being anything resembling pleasant. She’s an intricate enigma and her husband enjoys explaining and making sense of her to others. A quote that reiterates this idea reads, “My wife was a constellation without a mythology to inform her shapes” (Jemc 160). In the beginning of the story, I was reminded of a quote from the film Ruby Sparks: “Quirky, messy women whose problems only make them endearing are not real.” She is a classic, yet more intense version than I’ve witnessed, example of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl character that we are sometimes presented in fiction and film. Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Summer in 500 Days of Summer immediately come to mind, for example. However, the most prominent similarity between all of these women is that they are displayed to us as ideas relayed by the male leads. I don’t think this is an unrealistically painted person, but she is romanticized and most likely exaggerated by our narrator. The husband puts her behavior, even when despicable, on a pedestal and worships her. This pedestal is what she desires out of a relationship. It is unhealthy, but it is real.
The high contrast between these two characters can be found in the following quotation: “My wife walked out of theaters when she was bored, offended, tired, felt like moving. I sat through every movie I ever bought a ticket to, even if they were insufferable. I waited to see how a story turned out, if it redeemed itself” (Jemc 166). The small moments that are told, out of order, looking back on a now ended marriage are tense and concise, which makes for a quick pace. The tension is found in the knowing from the beginning of their no longer being together rather than a sudden break up, like Jemc could have done, if she wanted. As we read, we don’t have an unexpected split we’re waiting for when they inevitably do part ways, which holds even more tension, in my opinion. Since our narrator discusses glimpses of time of his and his wife’s marriage that is being told after its conclusion, readers experience a unique perspective. From the very first page, we see the use of the past tense, which immediately sparks the interest of the reader. We see this throughout the work, but especially at the beginning of each chapter, for example: “My wife had”, “My wife was”, “My wife wore”, etc.
The wife defies expectations and has frequent mood swings—she’s always changing. She’s dependent and inclusive, then reclusive and absent the next moment, which makes her a mysterious puzzle in the eyes of her husband. To him, she is a challenge; she is art. In reality, she is a manipulator, yet still her husband mourns her leaving him. One thing that I thought odd was that these characters didn’t have clear motivations. The husband’s desire was to have the love and attention of his wife, but I’m not sure what hers was. I appreciated that this story didn’t conclude with a happy ending of her returning to fall in love all over again and finally get to know each other for who they are. This is common and unrealistic and it irks me. In regards to the wife’s disappearance, I don’t think her leaving matters. The husband doesn’t seem to be worried that she’s been kidnapped or murdered or anything, so I wasn’t either. She is an idea more than a person, to us, and all that matters is she is gone forever and out of this man’s life. We are left knowing that he will either move on and start anew or he’ll live the rest of his days in this never ending state of fixation. There is a great deal of originality in My Only Wife, in terms of characters, form, point of view, perspective, and plot, as a whole. This story isn’t really about the characters, themselves. It is an inspiration of retrospection and criticism on human behavior, particularly in the realm of relationships.