The Good Wife
By Stewart O’Nan
Read Jan 2021
Patty Dickerson is one of three sisters. She isn’t the pretty one or the smart one. She was just an average girl who was anxious to leave home and get away from her mother and her mother’s household. She married Tommy and lives with him in an apartment that is a big step up from the one they first occupied when they married. They both work at some jobs and Tommy plays in an adult hockey league.
When the book opens, we meet Patty as she kisses her husband goodbye. He is going to celebrate his goal in the hockey game that evening with his teammates. She is heading home as she’s pregnant and tired from working all day before sitting on a hard bench that night to watch the game and cheer for Tommy. She never expects that will be the last time she sees Tommy outside a jail or prison for a long time.
We learn along with Patty that apparently Tommy and his friend Gary have been breaking into houses and stealing things. While Patty was getting ready for bed after the hockey game Tommy and Gary were breaking into an older woman’s house. She somehow dies, they try to cover it up with a fire, and, of course are discovered quickly when a neighbor calls 911 about the flames he sees and the figures that leave the house. They land in jail that night.
Who did what? Burglary? Accidental manslaughter? Second degree murder? Arson? Whose hands caused the death? Tommy is defended by a public defender. Gary can afford a lawyer.
We witness Patty trying to make sense of all this, attending the hearings, trying to find money for a “real” lawyer, trying to understand what the public defender is telling her, visiting Tommy in jail, and realizing this situation isn’t resolving quickly or well.
The author has us continue to witness Patty’s trials as she tries to figure out what to do, how to be, who she is. We watch her lose her apartment, move in with her sister for a while and then move in with her mother in the house she had so anxiously wanted to leave not that many years ago.
The book did not follow the course this reader though it might although it started down that path. The book is a simple but complex story of a woman married to a man who ends up in prison and whose son knows his father only through the visits he makes with his mother.
The book is set in the Southern Tier of New York State. The author captures well the small town atmosphere. He describes plainly and clearly the drive to the prison in Auburn and then the long bus ride she takes later when he is transferred to a prison outside Dannemora, a prison made famous a few years ago by the escape of two prisoners aided by a guard.
The reader does not get the sense that the author is trying to instruct about nor opine about the criminal justice system. His focus is simply Patty. What she experiences as she lives her life as it has been transformed by that one night when Tommy didn’t make it home. He does that job well.