Questions and Topics for Discussion
Thousands of readers fell in love with and rooted for Rose Lloyd, the winning heroine of Elizabeth Buchan’s bestselling novelRevenge of the Middle-Aged Woman. What could be more delicious, more satisfying, than hearing how it all turned out for “the other woman,” Minty, who stole not only Rose’s husband but her job as well?
In Wives Behaving Badly, we are privy to the good, bad, and ugly of Minty’s story. She has now been married to Nathan for seven years and given birth to twin boys, Felix and Lucas. But things haven’t turned out exactly as Minty had planned. She seems unable to shake the stigma of being the second wife. Despite redecorating the entire house, Minty finds that the memories of Rose are everywhere. And ironically, after a passionate start, she and Nathan now find themselves immersed in the very domestic boredom that Nathan left Rose to escape. Worst of all, Minty is plagued by nagging doubts—does Nathan really love her or does he still love Rose? Did she ever truly love Nathan or was it the promise of a comfortable life that won her over?
When Rose calls Minty one day with terrible news that suddenly changes her world, Minty must overcome her shock and face head on all that she ever questioned and doubted about her marriage and her life. Once conflicted about motherhood, Minty now finds herself fiercely devoted to her children. Where before she always put herself first, Minty now comes to the aid of her nanny, her stepdaughter, and her best friend. At this time of her own great need and sorrow, Minty is finally able to give of herself. She grows up, into the mother, friend, and person she never thought she could or even wanted to be. And perhaps her biggest step forward is her embracing of Rose. Once dear friends and then bitter adversaries, Rose and Minty find themselves bound together by the very thing that drove them apart: their love for Nathan.
With her signature wit and unflinching eye for the modern-day drama of everyday domestic and professional affairs, Elizabeth Buchan has once again created a brilliant and poignant story about women, family, friendship, and the bumpy journey we all take toward a life we hope is worth living.
ABOUT ELIZABETH BUCHAN
Elizabeth Buchan is the author of several highly acclaimed and bestselling books of fiction, including the bestselling Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman, The Good Wife Strikes Back, Everything She Thought She Wanted, and Consider the Lily.
A CONVERSATION WITH ELIZABETH BUCHANHow and when did you decide to write this sequel to your hugely successful book Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman? And how did you decide to do it from Minty’s point of view as opposed to perhaps the more obvious choice of using Rose’s voice? How did you feel about Minty when writing Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman and did your opinion change or evolve in any way as you wrote Wives Behaving Badly?
The idea for Wives Behaving Badly came to me when I was asleep. I woke up one morning with Minty in my head. I had written two other novels in between but, at that moment, I knew I had to complete the circle of the story that began with Rose and the destruction of her marriage to Nathan. From the first, I felt—and my observations bore this out—that these kinds of situations are never straightforward, and so it proved to be as the novel began to roll onto the pages. Rose and Minty are linked in a complicated way. Neither can dismiss the other. When I wrote Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman I was inside Rose’s head. Now, I had to perform the ventriloquist’s trick and climb inside Minty’s. Not surprisingly perhaps, since I had to establish an intimate acquaintanceship with her, I found myself rather involved with Minty. She had done great damage (so had Nathan), but by the end of the novel a different Minty was emerging: battered and chastened but on a new path. I hope readers will understand her better and like her enough to enjoy her particular take on life.
Minty’s pain and reaction to having her husband die rings very true. In her book The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion talks about how the shoes were the only possessions of her dead husband’s that she could not bear to part with. Minty has the same trouble with Nathan’s shoes. Did you do some research into dealing with the death of a spouse or did you go by instinct alone as to how that loss might feel?
I am so thankful to say that I have no experience of a spouse’s death but, like everyone, there have been people close to me who have died. Looking now at the text, I can see that I drew on the experience of my father’s death, although I was not aware of this as I wrote it. Your question has made me think back and I remember in particular when it came to sorting out his clothes it was almost impossible for my mother and my sisters to throw away his ties and his army medals. They were so much a part of him. To discard them seemed like the final straw, the final blow. There is always some object, very often an unexpected one I suspect, that comes to embody the dead person and that object seems to hold the very essence of them.
Minty has many good women friends (Paige, for one) yet betrayed one of her best friends, Rose. To generalize, this seems to represent a paradox about women—they can be very loyal to one another but destructively competitive as well. Why do you think women do such mean things to one another? How do they differ from men in this regard?
Are men and women so different in this respect? If you look at the events in the average boardroom or council chamber there are many, many betrayals and bloodlettings by men. The difference is: Those betrayals are portrayed in a different guise. They come under the heading of “business” or “economic growth” but the human activity going on under those banners doesn’t deviate very much from the activity that goes under the banner of “family” or “friendship.” It is interesting how we respond to both. If something is deemed good for business then it gets a tick, even if that something is questionable morally. We are far less forgiving of, say, the other woman such as Minty. Having said that, what Minty does is unforgivable on many levels for she does betray a friendship and, as it turns out, destroys a family. Yet Minty is looking after herself—and do we do any different? There is a part of Minty in all of us—and the struggle to balance morality with the impulse to serve our self-interest is one that continues through life.
Work is often ignored in novels, yet you always highlight its significance in your characters’ lives. Would you talk about why the role of work seems to interest you so much and why it is often overlooked in many novels?
When my mother was a young woman, most women had to give up their jobs when they married, and a woman was obliged to obtain her husband’s permission to run a separate bank account. Women going out to work has transformed many aspects of modern Western society. But it brings enormous pressures; it takes a toll and it has affected the way the family works. The subject of work, and a mother’s working in particular, must be a huge and an important one for the writer—perhaps I feel especially strongly about the need to explore this in fiction because I found that being a working mother was very difficult and exhausting! I don’t think there are any easy solutions though.
You have called marriage an endlessly fertile theme for a writer. In an interview for The Good Wife Strikes Back, you said you were interested in asking why marriage works and why it lasts. Do you think you’ve figured out a lot of these questions over the years and answered most of them, perhaps with this novel in particular?
I think I can safely say that there is no one definitive answer. The health of marriage—and judging by the divorce figures this is a little rocky at present—is an indication of what is going on with people and the society they live in. Until recently, marriage was one of the building blocks of society. It was sanctified by the church and ratified by the state. Governments and experts talked about the family and made decisions and assumptions based on the old nuclear unit. That is all changing. There are many reasons why this is happening. In my novels, for example, I have explored the wife who stayed with the absent and erring husband, the abandoned wife, and in an earlier novel, Consider the Lily, I wrote about the initially loveless marriage and how it was transformed into something that worked. In each of these situations, there were hugely interesting psychological and social aspects to write about—as well as the story. For example, in The Good Wife Strikes Back, the wife decides to stay with her husband because she does not want to damage her daughter and she decides to take the risk. InEverything She Thought She Wanted the contemporary heroine has to try to balance marriage and motherhood with her work. In Wives Behaving Badly, I compare two other marriages to Minty and Nathan’s. Some might conclude that the bargain Gisela has struck with Roger to be questionable—but the marriage works. More problematic is Paige and her marriage to Martin—but Paige is undergoing a type of transition as she pushes herself back on track from having had three children after giving up a high-powered career. It is going to take time for Paige to pull her type of personality back together into reasonableness.
In writing about Nathan’s death, you seem to have crossed into some darker territory than your previous novels covered. Do you agree? Would you discuss the arc of your writerly life and how relevant your stage of life is to what you are writing at the time?
I have written about death before. In my second novel, Light of the Moon, quite a few characters met their deaths, including the main hero, because it was a wartime story and, in the circumstances, sadly inevitable. In later books, there have been deaths but I have never before tackled the subject quite so close up. I had to think very hard to try to convey its enormity and yet how death is felt and experienced in small everyday ways. A friend of mine told me that the death of her husband hit her hardest when she had to change a light bulb. It is those telling tiny details that I chose to work with. With respect to the writerly life, the novels have reflected the stages in my life. When I was younger I chose to write novels with bigger backdrops—the French Revolution, the Second World War. It was very useful for the infant novelist to have a set watershed event against which to pose characters and demand courage, hardship, passion, daring, etc. from them. As I progressed I became very interested in the smaller, but no less significant, arena. It seemed to me that those important shifts in emotion and sensibility can happen when you are shelling the beans at home as it can when you ride out to battle. And when I stepped into the middle-age bracket, I felt I had no option but to write about it—because I discovered that it was an exciting place to be.
Did you plan on having Nathan die when you first started writing Wives Behaving Badly? If so, did you think it was absolutely necessary in order to tell Minty’s story, and if not, how did you decide on this dramatic turn of events?
Yes, I knew Nathan would die. This was a ruthless decision but I needed Minty to have to face the situation on her own in order to make the emotional journey that I had planned for her. I also wanted to examine the dynamics of this triangle. I suspected, and it became increasingly clear as I wrote Wives Behaving Badly, that it was not Nathan who occupied the top of the triangle but Rose. Her power became greater because of her absence from the marriage. She was the hovering ghost. The Other that haunts us. When Nathan dies that shifts into another plane and changes shape. Rose becomes—with some difficulty and distress—a kind of ally and Minty discovers that it is her children who now haunt her—as every new parent discovers.
Whose story are you most interested in telling next?
I have become fascinated by the illuminated Books of Hours that were produced in medieval times. They were often stunningly beautiful and I want to write about a woman—her name is Nell—who has been commissioned by a wealthy collector to track down lost pages from the fabled De Gris Book of Hours, which was cut up during the nineteenth century. The page depicts the figure of Bathsheba bathing and, in the past, has sent many collectors almost mad because it is so beautiful and desirable. But there is something else about the story of this book. Nell feels there is a puzzle to the picture and she needs to find out precisely what. In doing so, she will discover things about herself, things that are surprising and will change the course of her life. I hope to have lots of detail about medieval life and painting, and also about the highly charged contemporary art world, which seethes with ambitions and egos and is driven by a combination of big money and a love of beauty.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONSMinty recalls a quote that says “cynics are the only true romantics.” Do you agree? How might it apply to Minty? “I was marrying Nathan without any of the true and proper feelings, only nonfeelings,” Minty adds (p. 5). What does she mean by this? Why do you think she married Nathan?
In the opening of Chapter One, Minty lists the rules that govern her life—a partly humorous, partly serious list. What do you think of them? Do you have your own set of rules? If so, discuss them. If not, why not?
Minty is shocked when she discovers Nathan’s personal journal with the notation about most people’s having a “secret grief.” What do you think Nathan’s secret grief is? Do you agree that everyone has one? Do you think Nathan, consciously or unconsciously, wanted Minty to read his private notebook? Should she have read it? Are there limits to privacy in a marriage, and when do private thoughts turn into secrets that shouldn’t be kept?
What do you think about Minty’s attitude toward motherhood? For example, “There are not many good things about being pregnant” (p. 113), and earlier Minty felt “absolutely nothing” when her twins were born (p. 28). These are certainly not the typical sentiments one usually hears about becoming a mother. Do you think Minty is just more honest than most about the subject or does she truly lack the maternal instinct? Given her feelings, why did she get herself into her current predicament?
Why do you think it was Rose whom Nathan first told about being sacked by Vistemax? What do you think Nathan’s feelings for Rose really were? Why do you think Elizabeth Buchan chose to have Nathan die in Rose’s house?
Minty decides to take the boys to the place by the sea where Nathan and Rose used to go. Why does she decide, after many years of resisting, to do this now? What does she discover there about Nathan and about herself?
Despite their seeming dislike of each other, Rose and Minty keep ending up together. Why is that? Do you think they need each other in some way? By the end of the novel they have made amends. Can a friendship ever truly recover from a betrayal such as Minty’s? Do you think Minty will agree to keep Rose as the twins’ legal guardian in the will, should anything happen to her?
When the boys’ nanny, Eve, becomes ill, it seems to signal another significant turning point in Minty’s life. Discuss how Eve’s illness sets in motion other events and how it leads to further change in Minty.
At one point in the novel, Minty thinks, “I should have been honest with Nathan and told him, We won’t be free. It isn’t like that” (p. 240). What does she mean? Would it have changed anything if she had told him?
At the beginning of the novel, how did you feel about Minty? Did you find her sympathetic? Did your feelings change at all by the end of the novel?
Elizabeth Buchan makes beautiful use of the garden as a metaphor for life in many of her novels. Discuss how she does so here in Wives Behaving Badly.
Minty is working on a project about being “middle-aged,” and the subject is often referred to throughout the novel. How would you define/describe “middle age”? Is it different for men and women? Has the definition changed over the years? Would you attribute Nathan’s actions to a midlife crisis?
Marriage is a central theme here and in Buchan’s other novels. If you’ve read her other books, discuss the relationships in each and what Buchan seems to say about marriage, monogamy, and fidelity. In addition to being a perennial subject of literature, marriage has also become a political hot topic as its very definition is being debated. Why do you think it sparks such intense feelings? Discuss what you think makes a marriage successful as well as the things that can doom it to failure.