Helen Benedict's latest novel, THE SAILOR'S WIFE, has a lousy title and gives us a story that takes a while to develop. However, once it gets underway, you will find yourself gripped by the tale of Joyce, an 18-year-old hang-ten chick from Florida who ends up married to a young Greek sailor, living in his tiny Greek island home with his parents and contemplating the pleasant drudgery of her everyday existence of chores and peasant life as a fine alternative to the crazy American lifestyle she's left behind. However, when she starts to see the reality behind the possessive love of her in-laws and husband and begins to see how her freedoms have been restricted by her role as peasant wife, Joyce makes some tough decisions and enters the age of women's liberation. From the perspective most of us have on strict marriages and Old Country lifestyles, it is difficult at first to understand Joyce's plight. However, Benedict keeps at us, introducing temptations for Joyce that bring out the American girl who values her freedom.
The novel is written in a lusty, heaving-bosom narration that eventually turns itself into a cartoony enterprise, but Joyce's unusual predicament --- her need to love her new family and accept their love for her, her American ideals played out on the tough terrain of poor Greek life, the past filled with persecution and revolution that her Greek family has suffered --- brings her to a place where she begins to truly comprehend, for the first time in her life, how her devil-may-care attitude about her old life's freedom in America did not take into account how spoiled she was, how she could not possibly understand at first why people were willing to die for those rights in other countries. The American outsider's eyes see everything, good and bad, and find the world shifting crazily up and down, as she experiences more and more and watches her naivete slip away with each new situation.
When Joyce falls in love with an English man who visits the island, she understands the duplicity in the relationship and yet can't seem to help herself from betraying not only her husband, who is away on ship for months and months at a time, but her new family as well. Later, when she learns that they also have betrayed her, it is still difficult for her to pull herself away from the simple and predictably comfortable life she has with them. Benedict allows Joyce to come to conclusions in short bursts so that we, as readers, are always one step ahead, waiting for her to realize the gravity or depravity of a situation. When she does arrive at the conclusions we have already reached, there is always a new perspective we know she is about to encounter. Joyce's travels to liberation are written almost like a thriller, and we follow along, greedily awaiting her next breakthrough.
THE SAILOR'S WIFE is such a bad title for this book --- Joyce is so much more than that. But perhaps this is what Benedict had in mind; the irony of the simple title and the simple life Joyce thinks she is leading is that things are so much more complicated below the surface. THE SAILOR'S WIFE gives the reader a fascinating journey into the complexities of a world in transition, which at the heart, we can all relate to.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on October 1, 2000
The Sailor's Wife