My Sunday book review is for Amy Sue Nathan’s – Well Behaved Wives. This book takes place in the early 60s where most women were coming into themselves and waking up for and beginning to stand up for their equal rights. But there are many places where that kind of ambition and talk is just nonsense. Ruth Applebaum is the main character and will have you cheering for her all through the facade she must keep up, hiding her true ambition.
Perfect wives, imperfect lives, and upending the rules of behavior in 1960s America.
Law school graduate and newlywed Ruth Appelbaum is acclimating to life and marriage in a posh Philadelphia neighborhood. She’ll do almost anything to endear herself to her mother-in-law, who’s already signed up Ruth for etiquette lessons conducted by the impeccably accessorized tutor Lillian Diamond. But Ruth brings something fresh to the small circle of housewives—sharp wit, honesty, and an independent streak that won’t be compromised.
Right away Ruth develops a friendship with the shy Carrie Blum. When Carrie divulges a dark and disturbing secret lurking beneath her seemingly perfect life, Ruth invites Lillian and the Diamond Girls of the etiquette school to finally question the status quo.
Together they form an unbreakable bond and stretch well beyond their comfort zones. For once, they’ll challenge what others expect from them, discover what they expect from themselves, and do whatever it takes to protect one of their own—fine manners be damned.
My 5 Star Review:
This story is set in mid-upper class suburb of Wynnefield, Philadelphia, early 1960s. This is where Ruth has moved to with her newlywed husband Asher after she graduated law school in New York and eloped with Asher. They are living with Asher’s parents Shirley and Leon, with the secret that Ruth is a liberal woman who is studying for the bar exam, and decide not to tell Asher’s parents because his pushy mother Shirley expects Ruth to be an obedient, good Jewish wife and be subservient to her husband.
Shirley decides to send Ruth to her friend Lillian’s private housewife etiquette school at her home where a small group of girls learn how to become the perfect wives, shop, cook, clean, have babies, praise their husbands, and of course, after a day’s work, make sure they get changed into fancy dresses and put on make-up to greet their husbands when they return from a hard day’s work at the office, complete with a cocktail in hand upon their return – almost Madmen-esque. Except Ruth is a sharp and educated young woman and has seen and dealt with things growing up and living in New York that this group of girls she meets are oblivious to – until they become woke.
Ruth came from a family where women were treated equally and she lost her mother at four years old. She is forward thinking for the times. She didn’t want to upset the apple cart by sharing her becoming a lawyer intentions with anyone, until she befriends a few girls in the etiquette class and reveals her education to one of them. These girls also went to college, but not so much for the education, but to snag a husband. Ruth also volunteered to help abused women while back in New York, and somehow observes that there is indeed abuse going on in high society where she now lives, which isn’t exposed, nor believed around the good family value circles she’s now living among. The other girls in her group are Carrie, still childless with a secret, Irene who was made to give up her nursing career once married, and now has four young kids, and Harriet, newly engaged to be married, and both envious and curious about Ruth’s ambition.
Through the story we learn that Lillian’s seemingly perfect life isn’t as fulfilling as she wishes it could be Lillian could have had a career too, she comes to realize, once she learns how independent Ruth is. We can sympathize with Lillian, despite how she comes off at first as ‘Miss Manners’, as we get to know more about her sad childhood that comes to light in conversations, discovering she was raised by her grandparents because her mother was put in an institution when Lillian was only eleven and her father was dead. Until one day, Lillian discovers an old photo of herself with her parents, which compels her to go visit her institutionalized mother – with said, dementia, to see if the picture stirs anything of recognition – then a whole new kettle of fish is discovered – and a terrible secret exposed about what caused her mother to be institutionalized.
Ruth’s husband is crazy about her but keeps putting off the time to share Ruth’s ambitions with his parents. Ruth befriends one of the girls in particular and shares her secret that she has graduated law school and studying for the bar. She suspects this friend is being physically abused by her husband, but the girl denies it and makes excuses for her husband and tries to shut Ruth out of her life, afraid to cause trouble. But Ruth instinctively wants to help her, because it’s part of who she is and what she does – defend powerless women. Later in the book the women are forced to confront the realism of domestic abuse and many secrets of the past are revealed about Lillian and Shirley’s past, and secret lives.
This story takes on many issues about women back in the early 60s. Society dictates what’s expected of them, but some have a voice and go against the norm. Spousal abuse in an upper class surburbia just couldn’t be possible. Respectable men with important jobs would never abuse their wives, would they? And awakenings stir on the topic of mental health, which back in those days didn’t take much to have a woman committed for hysteria or any other dispicable label they could place on one to have them certifiably locked up because their men declared them so.
This book was a time capsule about the place of women back in the early 60s, a nod to how far we’ve come since then, but then again, how much further we have yet to go. I enjoyed this book so much – the characters, the issues, and the development of these ‘Diamond’ girls who learned to take their power. The writing was beautiful, and I should look forward to reading more from this author. At the end of the book, the author offers many resources for abused women to seek help. I’ll definitely be reading more from this author.