The sad, mad world of housewives in the 1960’s and 70’s

One of the stories in this delightfully engaging new collection examines the night hours of a sleepless housewife. Her husband Howard sprawls across their bed in glorious dreamland, while Paulette sits on the floor engaged in deep breathing exercises. They don’t work; so she eats raisins, cheese, and marshmallows in the kitchen; spelunks underneath the bed discovering lost objects; and imagines a lover in St. Louis or Chicago. Everyone sleeps except Paulette, a capricious woman, of the kind Hilma Wolitzer tells us are never satisfied. 

“Nights” is among 13 stories by Wolitzer published together for the first time since their original appearances in national magazines in the 1960s and 1970s, one in 1987. These entertaining gems timelessly evoke the dreams, fears, contentment, and disappointments of housewives carrying the full domestic load. Some stories are heartrending but most evoke a bristling energy with a cheeky tone, bolstered with common sense. That’s due to Paulette. She narrates a majority of the stories with her droll insight, embracing her marriage’s imperfections as short-term inconveniences. 

In the story “Sundays,” Paulette encourages Howard to tour model homes in suburban developments to distract him from his depression, and feel good about their New York City life. This one Sunday, Paulette mocks the roped-off bedrooms hung in velvet drapery and the rubber chicken roosting in the warm refrigerator, but Howard doesn’t play. In turn, Paulette doesn’t avoid or judge or cajole, rather realizes the mockery may not be working anymore and considers the two of them may be looking for happiness in the wrong places. 

In the story “Trophies,” Howard’s father dies. Howard leaves to be with his mother in Florida to help her adjust and “prepare her for survival.” He selfishly draws out the stay, enjoying the sun-nourished beaches and his mother’s doting attentions. Paulette, in her effervescent sneakiness knows just how to get Howard running home. (It has to do with the flirtatious man in apartment 16J.)

We cheer for her, the way she responds with that blessed skill to weather relationship challenges employing confidence and tactical humor. In the story “Mrs. X,” she receives an anonymous tip that Howard is cheating on her. So there Paulette stands with binoculars at the window of their 19th floor apartment watching her husband, the best father in the world, disappear with a woman behind a building, abandoning their two children “left alone in the Sinai Desert of the sandbox.” Wolitzer veers away from Paulette as victim toward Paulette as snarky realist.

It isn’t fair because it shouldn’t be me so big and wounded on the receiving end. Listen, I made compromises when I saw him for the first time in all his rumpled charm. And I let it pass when he saw me and said all those needless things about white valleys and Rubens when a simple ‘ooh’ would have been just right.

“Mrs. X” ends with a cautionary twist that’s a sly, big smile.

The stories that do not feature this unforgettable couple tend toward sadness and misfortune, such as the story “Mother” in which a childless couple finally conceives but with tragic consequences; and the story “Love” in which a woman doesn’t love her husband but refuses to agree when he asks for a divorce. 

While stories in this collection were published in the previous century, at the end of each, how we feel, what we’ve realized, resonate today. Surely many will see themselves in the title story, where an anguished woman stands immobilized in a grocery aisle, ignoring her two children clinging to her skirt and pleas from shoppers to move over so they can get through. “‘There is no end to it,”” she says. We don’t get much information about this woman, but we know what’s going on: Just. Can’t. Do It. Anymore.

The last story, “The Great Escape,” is indeed of today, written in 2020. It concludes this marvelous collection with Paulette in the morning looking over at Howard to make sure she sees the shallow rise and fall of his breath. A virus is going around, and their daughter phones to tell them to be careful. 

Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket: Stories by Hilma Wolitzer is published by Bloomsbury. A version of this review aired on NPR member station WOSU 89.7 FM, broadcasting throughout central Ohio.

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