The Poets’ Wives, David Park
Published April 1st, 2014 by Bloomsbury USA
What does it mean to be a poet’s wife, his muse and lover, there for the heights of inspiration and the quotidian of the day-to-day, and oftentimes, too, the drudgery of being in a supporting role to “the great man”?
In this exquisite and sensitive new novel, David Park explores this complicated relationship through three luminous characters: Catherine Blake, wife of William Blake, nineteenth-century poet, painter, and engraver; Nadezhda Mandelstam, whose husband, Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, died in a transit camp en route to Siberia during Stalin’s rule; and Lydia, the wife of a fictional contemporary Irish poet, who looks back on her husband’s life in the days just after his death.
All three women deal with their husband’s fame or notoriety, taking seriously their commitment to the men they married and to assisting with and preserving their work. And this despite infidelities, despite a single-mindedness at the expense of others, and despite hardship sometimes beyond comprehension.
Set across continents and centuries, under wildly different circumstances, these three women exist as a testament to love, to relationship despite the odds, and to art. Deeply insightful and beautifully wrought, The Poets’ Wives is David Park at his best—a novelist who finds dignity and grace away from the spotlight, and who reminds us that art has the power to capture even the quietest of voices.
This was my first David Park book, and I was drawn to the idea of the story of the women behind the poets William Blake, Osip Mandelstam and the fictional Don. I am afraid that I liked the idea of this book more than the book itself. There were passages in each wife’s story that were beautiful and eloquent about love, marriage and sacrifice; but these were not enough to pull the whole book together for me. The three sections just broke from Catherine, to Nadezhda, to Lydia, and I needed something to connect them. I understand they were all wives of poets-but the lack of a connection of some kind was too harsh for me.
I liked the overlying question of the book, which to me was how much do you have to sacrifice for art? These women sacrificed comfort, relationships, and independence to their husbands and to the calling of Poetry. I don’t know that I’d have been willing to make some of those choices. Nadezhda’s story was just heartbreaking and made me want to read more about both her story and her husband’s. This part of the book was my favorite, despite how sad it was.
I thought the choice to use a fictional character with the lives of these two real women was interesting. It seemed like Park wanted the reader to feel as much sympathy for Lydia as for the real women and I just could not do that. I think I would have liked Lydia fine had the book been about her and her family’s’ story entirely. But I just couldn’t feel as much for someone who chose to stay with a philandering husband (poet or not) compared to a victim of Stalin.
Maybe I should tell Holly to read this as part of her research on marriage? Because really, some of the passages were very moving. All of the other reviews I’ve read so far have been positive, so maybe this was just my disconnect-read it and tell me what you think!
I received this advanced copy from NetGalley and Bloomsbury in exchange for an honest review.