The Good Wife A Novel

Stewart O'Nan




Trade Paperback

320 Pages



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A Washington Post Best Book of the Year
A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year

On a clear winter night in upstate New York, two young men break in to a house they believe is empty. It isn't, and within minutes an old woman is dead and the house is in flames. Soon after, the men are caught by the police. Across the county, a phone rings in a darkened bedroom, waking a pregnant woman. It's her husband. He wants her to know that he and his friend have gotten themselves into a little trouble. So Patty Dickerson's old life ends and a strange new one begins.

At once a love story and a portrait of a woman discovering her own strength, The Good Wife follows Patty through the twenty-eight years of her husband's incarceration, as she raises their son, navigates a system that has no place for her, and braves the scorn of her community. Compassionate and unflinching, The Good Wife illuminates a marriage and a family tested to the limits of endurance.


Praise for The Good Wife

"The Good Wife is a chronicle of one woman's bad luck so sympathetically imagined that it makes the world outside the book feel insubstantial and false . . . What's most striking is his feeling for the psychological details of life on the outside . . . There are novels that create a mood so intense that, as long as the story lasts, the reader can't escape it. I was gloomy all week while I was reading The Good Wife, and I felt as if I were blinking when Tommy finally sees the exterior of the maximum-security prison where he served his sentence."—Nell Freudenberger, The New York Times
"Like Evan S. Connell's classic 1959 novel Mrs. Bridge, Stewart O'Nan's The Good Wife is the story of an ordinary woman's life over a great sweep of time. Connell used short bulletin-like chapters to create a complete vision of his character's circumstances and limitations; O'Nan's chapters tend to be a little longer, but the effect is similar. The accretion of quotidian detail gives us a kind of timeline of the life of Patty Dickerson, a woman whose husband, Tommy, commits a crime while drunk at the beginning of the novel and ends up spending the remainder of it—28 years—in jail for murder. Also like Mrs. Bridge, The Good Wife is powerful, unforgettable . . . Stewart O'Nan knows what Evan S. Connell knew in Mrs. Bridge: that an unassuming woman might be surprisingly complicated. Patty doesn't wrestle with the moral questions of her husband's guilt in the direct way a less subtle writer might have her do. Thoughts about the nebulous nature of his crime and about the lives of the victim's family do occur to her in harshly sad little moments. Patty has fantasies and plans for herself and her family. The title has an ironic sheen to it, for who could possibly be as good as Patty, as even-keeled and patient? But there's another level on which O'Nan is being completely earnest. Patty Dickerson is a wonderful character, and this novel is astonishing."—Meg Wolitzer, The Washington Post
"The Good Wife is the most lyrical and thoughtful novel in recent years on waiting and the long-term consequences of our actions . . . O'Nan writes in a deceptively simple style, confessional almost. Indeed, the tone here is so personal, so intimate, we feel like voyeurs, as if we're reading someone's diary."—June Sawyers, San Francisco Chronicle

"A moving, lyrical, assured piece of work . . . This is a quiet novel, written in a nearly adjective-free, spare, strong style. Yet the depth of feeling comes through in the plainness of the words . . . A fine and finely wrought fiction."—Diane Roberts, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"Grabs the reader immediately and refuses to let go. O'Nan has a gut understanding of the way ordinary people think and act in the most mundane and most extraordinary circumstances, and his sure command of dialogue strengthens that realism . . . This is a story of love and loyalty, duty and determination, beautifully told."—Carole Goldberg, The News & Observer (Raleigh)

"This engrossing and heartbreaking novel—O'Nan's follow-up to his nonfiction baseball memoir, Faithful—recounts the plight of Patty and Tommy Dickerson, a young married couple expecting their first child. One winter night, Tommy and a friend are arrested and accused of murdering an elderly woman during a bungled burglary; Tommy ends up in prison for 28 years, and Patty decides to stand by him throughout his sentence. The reader—along with many of Patty's family members—wants Patty to leave Tommy and get on with her life. Yet she visits him faithfully, learning the intricacies of prison visits and traveling long and then even longer distances as Tommy is transferred seemingly arbitrarily. All the while, she struggles to earn a living and raise their son. O'Nan has been named one of the best young American novelists by Granta, and it's evident here why. Highly recommended."—Library Journal

"The versatile, accomplished O'Nan follows up the ghostly doings of The Night Country with a quiet, realistic portrait of a woman waiting—for 28 years—for her husband to get out of jail. Patty is 27 and pregnant when she learns that husband Tommy and his buddy Gary have committed a string of burglaries and are now being charged with murder after an old woman dies during their latest break-in. With seasoned skill, O'Nan spends the first third of the story (through the trial) delineating Patty's situation. Relations are tense with her widowed mother, who has always disapproved of Tommy, and with older sister Shannon, who boasts a more affluent husband and lifestyle. Younger sister Eileen, her closest family ally, is broke, blue-collar, and a little raffish, like Patty and Tommy. In the trial, Gary turns state's witness, Tommy gets 25 to life, and Patty is left to raise baby Casey as a single mother with few job skills. The subsequent scenes episodically sketch her life, front-loaded toward the early years of Tommy's incarceration. Patty learns to cope with the monolithic prison system, at best indifferent to and often actively abusive of the convicts' families. O'Nan focuses on Patty's struggles and growth as she reluctantly moves in with her mother, endures a series of grinding, poorly paid jobs, and sees the scars Tommy's absence inflicts on their slightly aloof son, who nonetheless matures into a decent, responsible young man. The deliberately low-key narrative has few dramatic events—Tommy's abrupt transfer to a more distant prison is the most jarring—and even fewer discussions of people's feelings. Patty simply lives her commitment to her marriage every day for 28 years, and we believe in it because we believe in the fully dimensional, ordinary but extraordinary character O'Nan has created. She deserves her (qualified) happy ending, long though it is in coming. Another fine effort from a writer who in ten years has crafted nine novels dramatically different in tone and content but impressively consistent in their moral seriousness and artistic conviction."—Kirkus Reviews

“Patty Dickerson, the resilient heroine of O'Nan's forceful, oddly moving ninth novel, is pregnant with her first child and waiting for her husband, Tommy, on a snowy night in the mid-1970s, when the phone rings. It's Tommy, and he's in jail after a robbery. He's been a thief for some time, a fact Patty has refused to acknowledge. Unfortunately, Tommy's latest escapade involves arson and death. Convicted of murder in the second degree, he receives a sentence of 25 years to life. The main story is Patty's, told in the present tense in quietly lyrical and observant prose: the struggle to make ends meet in an economically depressed upstate New York community, the shame of her son's father being in prison, the frustrating and humiliating treatment the penal system inflicts on prisoners and family alike. In a sense, Patty's life is on semipermanent hold over the 28 years Tommy spends in a correctional facility, but of course it isn't really: her son grows up, she visits her husband as often as she can, she works, mostly at dead-end jobs, and eventually she creates a career for herself. In other words, she makes a life that's both with and without her love. O'Nan (The Night Country) has completely captured Patty Dickerson and her dogged determination to endure in this sad but strangely hopeful story.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Stewart O'Nan was named one of the Twenty Best Young American Novelists by Granta. He lives in Connecticut.
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  • Stewart O'Nan

  • Stewart O’Nan’s many novels include Snow Angels, The Speed Queen, A Prayer for the Dying and The Night Country. Granta has named him one of the Twenty Best Young American Novelists. He lives in Connecticut.
  • Stewart O'Nan Copyright Amy Etra
    Stewart O'Nan



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