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Discussion questions for ‘The Wife’

Our February pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club is Meg Wolitzer’s “The Wife.” Become a member of the book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.

Below are questions to help guide your discussions as you read the book over the next month. You can also submit your own questions for Wolitzer on our Facebook page, some of which she will answer on the NewsHour broadcast at the end of the month. Spoiler alert on questions further down.

  1. The novel begins with the statement: “The moment I decided to leave him…” Are you drawn in by the narrator’s voice?
  2. Joe Castleman tells his class at Smith College that he loves books in part because “as you get older, life sort of eats away at you like battery acid,” and books seem to ward off that feeling. Do you agree?
  3. What is the significance of the conversation early on between the book’s narrator and protagonist, Joan, and the author Elaine Mozell?
  4. At this point in your reading, do you see Joe as a fraud? Or do you believe his wife only sees him this way?
  5. Several times in the book, Wolitzer describes male writers as trying to capture the whole world in their books, while women are expected to write about domestic scenes, or in miniature. Do you agree with this characterization? Do you believe there are fundamental differences between male and female writers?
  6. Why do you think Wolitzer chose to have Joe leave Carol over her aversion to sex after pregnancy?
  7. What is the meaning of Joe’s many infidelities? Of his walnuts?
  8. Why doesn’t Joan sleep with anyone else?
  9. Much of the book revolves around Joe’s winning of the Helsinki Prize. Is this award the final straw for Joan, or do you believe she’d be ready to leave him anyway?
  10. What role does Nathaniel Bone play in the book?
  11. What is the significance of Joe’s constant hunger? His pig heart?
  12. Joan’s reading of Tosha Bresner’s suicide is so different from Joe’s. What is the significance of the contrast?
  13. What is the importance of the scene in which David holds a knife to his father’s neck?
  14. Was the trade-off that Joe and Joan made in any way fair?
  15. “The Wife” goes back and forth in time between the present and many incidents in the past. How did this structure propel the story toward its conclusion?
  16. Were you surprised by the ending? How so?
  17. Why do you think Joan uttered the final line she did?
  18. “The Wife” was first published in 2003. What do you think has changed in marriage in America — and in how men and women relate — since then?