Friday, February 24, 2017

The Young Wives Club, by Julie Pennell

Atria Books, ISBN 9781501136467, February 2017

In retrospect, it's fair to say I wasn't the target demographic for this book. It's not that it's about "young wives" that's the problem. It's that the oldest of these young wives is all of twenty-one years old. The youngest is eighteen, dropped out of high school to marry her quarterback boyfriend who was headed off to play football for LSU, and has now realized, after more than a year of marriage, that maybe this wasn't such a great idea. Maybe she wanted, for instance, to finish high school and be doing her own college-level work rather than her husband's.

In fairness, Laura is the only one of the four "young wives" whom anyone (specifically, her mother) tried to suggest should wait.

Laura, Claire (the old lady of the group, married to a minister), Gabby, and Madison are all likable, well-drawn characters. Their men, and their families, friends, and neighbors, are all well-drawn as well. The writing is good. None of that is the issue I have with this book.

No, the problem is that the author is a southerner who shares the belief of her characters that getting married right out of high school is perfectly normal, adult, and responsible, while I'm a New Englander. where pretty much nobody gets married before their mid-twenties. As to whether this is "just a cultural difference" or one of these viewpoints is objectively more correct than the other, I would suggest you check out the relative divorce rates of, say Massachusetts vs. Louisiana.

Laura's obvious mistake in dropping out of high school to marry a guy going to college on a football scholarship aside, Claire was apparently nineteen when she married Pastor Gavin Thibodeaux, and at just twenty-one, is still rather young to be caring for an infant child, managing his entire social media presence, and ghostwriting a book for him; Gabby has fallen in love with, and gets engaged to, a genuinely good, solid man (he's a lawyer, so old enough to have graduated law school), to whom she has lied about every important detail of her life; Madison is hung up on an ambitious wannabe rock star, who treats her like dirt, while seeing an older, richer guy who treats her with respect, solely because he can help pay the bills for her parents now that her father, who is dying of cancer, is no longer able to work.

Let's note that Madison is motivated by genuine love and concern for her parents, while still noting that this is neither good behavior, nor longterm sensible: George, the guy with both money and good character, is worth about a million times more than Cash, the guy she's been hung up on since childhood, but who has no good character traits at all. It doesn't really matter where you place the moral blame in any particular case. I'd say that overall, it's fairly evenly distributed. Cash is just a straight up exploitive jerk, but really, although with much more sympathetic motives, so is Madison. Laura and Claire are both trying to do the right thing in their marriages, but at least in Claire's case, it's not clear that Gavin isn't trying, too. Gabby recognizes the hole she's dug for herself, and just can't make herself do the right thing.

But the real problem here is that none of these women, and only a couple of the men, were even old enough to be making the commitment of marriage. They're adult-sized adolescents. More of the so-called adults around them needed to be encouraging them to finish their educations, grow up, and then decide about marriage. Yes, some of this is just cultural difference. But, I say again, compare the divorce rates. I don't care how it was in your great-grandparents' day. High school graduation is not a great time to announce your engagement. It's too young. And the only one in this book who gets dinged for marrying too young is Laura, who dropped out of high school to do it.

And neither the author nor any of her characters seeems to consider natural lack of maturity to be any part of the problem, here.

If you think getting married right out of high school is terribly romantic, or just completely normal, you'll probably like this book. The characters and the writing are very good. Personally, though, I have to say, not recommended.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.