Recently, my friends and I were discussing the sub-genre of women's fiction which features wives impulsively running away from their lives. Caroline Leavitt's Into Thin Air,Tess Stimson's The Wife Who Ran Away, and (more psychotically) Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl are a few that come to mind. This theme is immensely popular with female readers: it taps into that highly seductive query of "what if?" What if I just kept on driving/walking/swimming/pedaling out of this town? What if the road forked, and I just left my life?
Of course, we really don't want to leave our lives on a whim like that. It would be too sad and far too messy; repercussions of hurt and shame would haunt us before the first mile. That's where fiction steps in as delightful proxy. The reader suffers, laughs, and learns with the audacious wife without ever having the leave her couch.
My favorite books featuring runaway wives are Anne Tyler's Ladder of Years and Sheri Reynold's The Homespun Wisdom of Myrtle T. Cribb. Tyler's Delia Grinstead feels invisible in her large, quirky Baltimore family. The daughter and wife of a doctor, Delia has always served as a help-mate, manning a small in-home medical practice, first for her father, then for her husband. She never had a career or education beyond high school and has instead raised three children. One afternoon, after a spat with her husband on the beach, Delia simply walks away and hitches a ride with a contractor. Impulse follows impulse, and soon Delia is ensconced as a secretary in a small town, living a satisfyingly austere life in a boarding house while her family wonders what's become of her. Likewise, Reynolds' Myrtle feels stuck and unappreciated in her life; the wife of a crab fisherman who both loves and belittles her, Myrtle is anxious and crippled by self-doubt. She is deeply troubled by her body and her relationships with others: perceived deformity and diffidence make her feel inauthentic. Driving to a surgical appointment, Myrtle (emboldened by downing her husband's pain meds) decides to keep on going, leaving her life and all its imperfections behind. She soon discovers the town drunk, Hellcat, has inadvertently hitched a ride in the truck bed. As they travel and tipple, the two become buddies.
The lesson of both Ladder of Years and Homespun Wisdom is that sometimes you have to leave your life to find it. Delia learns that she is indeed a capable, efficient person who could have been a career woman had she wanted; the truth is, though, she finds she is most perfectly suited to be the wife and mother she is. By leaving her family, she understands that she will be strong enough for her children to leave her, which, nearly grown, they are doing in small bits every day. Myrtle learns self-reliance and confidence on her pilgrimage; she holds her husband accountable for his hurtfulness but also learns that her self-negation and silence over the years have not helped her marriage.
The pathway to these characters' life lessons is through other settings and other people. Interaction with personalities not part of their regular lives highlights the flaws and virtues of Delia's and Myrtle's family and friends. Experiencing the "other" will take you more authentically home.