It's time for another edition of 'Shelf Pleasuring', an occasional feature in which we revisit the sexiest books we stole off our parents' shelves when they weren't looking. Today, Fine Lines proprietrix, blogger, NPR book reviewer and filthy-novel-fiend Lizzie Skurnick writes about 'Wifey', Judy Blume's 1978 novel about having your cake...and getting it eaten out, too.
Can someone please explain this five-course, multiple orgasm thing to me? I don't mean this exact second, you can read the review first, but at the end of this exegesis I would like a few people to enter the comments and iterate the exact circumstances under which one would be able to claim one had enjoyed "Breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack." (I myself am not hungry, per se, but, having never been sure if I've personally taken part in the all-day buffet in question, I need to know if I should request a complimentary voucher or something.)
The source of the question in question is one Sandy Schaedal, a housewife in Plainfield, NJ, flush in the middle of late 1960s Jewish suburbia, wherein which the children of hardworking, Depression-era parents are suddenly experiencing all that club memberships, trips to the Bahamas, open marriages, and browned chicken from Elegant but Easy cookbooks can add to the quota of human happiness.
When we encounter Sandy, she's just recovered from a serious bout of classic debilitating housewife hysteria, and is at the end of her rope with her husband, Norm, the upright, uptight owner of a chain of a dry-cleaning stores. Norm is the kind of tidy husband who asks Sandy to keep track of his dog's "sticks" and "wees," likes his (browned) chicken on Wednesdays and his sex on Saturdays, and chooses to retire to his side of their twin beds every night, joined only by one headboard:
One bed for Norman, with cool, crisp sheets, preferably changed twice a week, not that he didn't want fresh ones daily...and one bed for Sandy, where, once a week, on Saturday nights, if she didn't have her period, they did it. A Jewish nyphomaniac. They fucked in her bed, then Norman went to the bedroom to wash his hands and penis, making Sandy feel dirty and ashamed. He'd climb into his own bed then, into his clean, cool sheets, and he'd fall asleep in seconds, never any tossing, turning, sighing. Never any need to cuddle, or laugh quietly with her. Three to five minutes from start to finish. She knew. She's watched the digital bedside clock often enough. Three to five minutes. Then he'd say, "Very nice, did you get your dessert?"
"Yes, thank you, dessert was fine."
....She's learned to come in minutes, seconds if she had to, and she almost always made it twice. No problem there. She almost always got her main course and her dessert. But usually it was a TV dinner and Oreo when she craved scampi and mousse au chocolat.
Conjured up like some priapic avatar of her most unseemly desires, Sandy has of late been haunted by an odd type of ghost, who conforms to his kind only in that he, too, sports a white sheet (hospital variety). Briefly, there is a man who drives up on her lawn with a motorcycle wearing a Stars and Stripes helmet who masturbates on the lawn, then departs with a wave. (Norm's comment after the first incident: "The motorcycle: Did it leave ridges in the lawn?")
Naturally, this cannot stand, but Sandy's life simply as the mother of two children, Jen and Bucky, who are now away at camp, has left room for the kind of whole rampant for over-examination, both mental and physical, that needs to find its outlet somewhere — which it has, in a raging itch that's taken over her nether regions. Asked by her brother-in-law, a gynecologist (no comment), about whether or not it might be psychosomatic, she replies, "I don't think I can discuss it with you, Gordon....I don't think I could discuss the subject at all."
Except, of course, with the reader:
My sex life? Oh, you mean my sex life. Yes. Well. Let's see. Ummmm, if you want to judge it strictly on the basis of orgasms it's fine. Terrific. That is, I masturbate like crazy, Gordon. You wouldn't believe how I masturbate. God, I'm always at it. Driving here, for instance, this morning....driving, get that, in traffic, no less....not, not the Cadillac, Norm took that to work. The Buick...driving the Buick...I hear this song on the radio...from my youth, Gordy, like when I was seventeen or something...Blue velvet, bluer than velvet was the night....it reminds me of Shep....and I get this feeling in my cunt....this really hot feeling....and just a little rubbing with one hand...just a little tickle, tickle on the outside on my clothes...just one-two-three and that's enough...I'm coming and I don't even want to come yet because it feels so good...I want it to last. And guess what, Gordy? I never itch after I come that way. I itch only after Norman. So, you see, it must have something to do with him. Maybe I am allergic to his semen...maybe I'm allergic to his cock...maybe I'm allergic to him!
But Sandy isn't only chafing at Norm, but her good-housewife place in the late-60s culture as a whole, which is erupting into all kind of nasty itchings and burnings, both racial and sexual. Unbeknownst to Norm, a stalwart member of the Young Republicans, Sandy has actually voted for Kennedy, for whom she sits shiveh to Norm's consternation, tossing sheets over the mirrors in the house. ("Jesus Christ, now you're going Orthodox?") When, at the urging of her traditionally good-looking, well-adjusted sister, Myra, the couple joins the area's exclusive Club, Norman immediately joins the Grievance Committee and kills on the tennis court while Sandy struggles through golf lessons, idly fantasizing about Roger, the club's golf pro and only black face on the scene, noting that the only part of the lesson she enjoys is when he stands behind her and wraps his arms around her to show her how to hold the club.
She also has very little in common with Myra's friends, who radiate health and wealth in equal proportions, in contrast with her sickly, uncoordinated, secretly sex-craving self. At one of Myra's parties, meeting her tennis-playing buddies, Sandy gets embroiled in a conversation about moving from increasingly black Plainfield to willfully white Watchung:
Sandy thought she might like Funky, with a bandana tied around her head, loaded down with Indian jewelry, best, until they got into a discussion about Plainfield.
"Plainfield, my God!" Funky said. "I thought Plainfield was all black."
"You mean not yet! If I were you, I'd get out while the going's good and move up to the Hills....In Watching you could send them to public school. We have only two black families in town and both are professional."
"It's really not a racial thing," Brown said, joining them. "It's more of a socioeconomic thing, don't you think?"
"Yes and no," Funky said. "Yes, in the sense that professional ones tend to think more like us and want what's best for their children. No, in the sense that they're still different no matter how hard you try to pretend they're not. I mean, put one in this room, right now, and suddenly we'd all clam up." She took a cheese puff from the tray offered by Elena, the black maid. "Thank you."
Sandy is no social revolutionary, but she's also not particularly invested in her own upward mobility — and therefore not invested in keeping others down. She's not about to join the Black Panthers — her sense of injustice is far more internal, a mordant irony that she only expresses to herself. (Remembering how the one time Norman tried to give her oral sex he had to gargle with Listerine for a half an hour, she quips to herself, "That's why I douche with vinegar...cunt vinaigrette...to make it more appetizing...you know, like browned chicken.") However, in the days where feminism ("Women's libbers," to Norm, "Dykes who want to be on top") is located only in encounter groups in a Manhattan that may as well be 2000 miles instead of 20 minutes away, Sandy has only her fantasies to rebel with—until they slide, as it were, very easily into reality.
Her first affair is with her brother-in-law, Gordy, and not very much on purpose. At one of Myra's blowout parties, Sandy goes into a room to rest and finds herself assailed by a very drunk Gordy, who is endearingly straightforward: "I've always wanted you, Sandy....always loved your little ass....your cunt....every time I examine you I want it....want to kiss it...to fill it...." Her second is with Shep, the boy she didn't marry because her mother never thought he'd go anywhere. "You can't eat handsome!" Actually, Mother, you can, Sandy thinks, remembering:
Still, she dreamed of Shep. She dreamed of kissing him there and over midwinter vacation had a sudden urge to take him in her mouth. What was she going to do about these disgusting thoughts? Decent people, normal people, didn't do those things...didn't even think about them. Shep was perverted. But she let him do that to her. Just once. And oh, it was so good. Like nothing she had ever experienced. She came over and over, as he licked and kissed and buried his face in her. Until she cried, "Stop...please stop...I can't take any more..."
And then he kissed her face and she tasted herself on him. And she liked it.
Sandy's fantasies—and subsequent affairs—aren't because she's a nymphomaniac, but rather, because she's trying to resolve the two things about Norm she can't reconcile: his liking for the rigid class code of the club, and his liking for an equally rigid sex life, where his irritation with Sandy's needs, his inability to give love, leaves her, appropriately enough, irritated: ("Norman, do you love me?" "I'm here, aren't I?") Gordy, sister-in-law-fucker though he may be, is not a pervert — he's just as depressed with the code of the Club as Sandy is. ("You know something, Sandy, I hate this fucking house, this stupid party.") And though Sandy would like to convince herself that she would have had a very different life with Shep, she finally has to admit that it would have entailed the same things as her life with Norm — the Club, kids, car pools — and their same deadening effects.
The flap copy calls Sandy "a very nice housewife with a very dirty mind," but in fact, she's neither. Sandy, cosseted by a life of leisure that's become a straightjacket, buffeted by fucking on the brain, is very, very normal. "So where did things go wrong, Norm?" she thinks, lying in bed. "So what happened? Comfortable. Safe. We had our babies. We made a life together. But now I'm sick....And I'm so fucking scared!...Oh mother, dammit! Why did you bring me up to think this is what i wanted? And now that I know it's not, what I am I supposed to do about it?"
It would have been very easy to make Norm the enemy here, and, truthfully, the husband who rants about woman's libbers, who tells Sandy she doesn't know how good she has it, then responds to her entreaty that she could get a job with, "Your first duty is to make a home for me and the kids. After that, you want a little part-time job, it's fine with me" is grounds for massive enragement.
But after Sandy gets gonorrhea and has to tell Norman about her affairs, she finds a cache of letters written from an ex-girlfriend in the attic:
She had a sudden desire to call Brenda, to ask her what Norman had really been like way back then. Because she could see now that there must have been another Norman. A Norman who dreamed of becoming a biologist...of saving the world. A Norman who loved intensely. Could that Norman still be locked inside the Norman she knew, just as another Sandy was inside her, struggling to get out?
You bet your ass! In fact, America of 1970 is a nation of Norms, struggling to reconcile their golf shoes with riots in Newark. At age 8, I'd never noticed the epigraph to the book, a quote from Good Times by Peter Joseph. "In terms of affluence," It reads, "America in the 60s reached a stage that other societies can only dream of," it reads. It's no surprise that the mystery masturbator wears a Stars 'n Stripes helmet. Wifey isn't a novel of raunch — it's a novel about two Americas, the old 50s model and the long-haired, 70s edition that suddenly need to resolve Sandy's greatest complaint: "Paying isn't caring, Norman."
But, you know what? Caring is caring, and that's what Norman and Sandy find out they both do. Shattered by Sandy's betrayal, Norm doesn't throw her out but instead makes a surprising offer: "We could get a double bed. I know you've always wanted one." (He also agrees to try oral sex after being told by Sandy "I think you have to develop a taste for it, Norm, like lobster.") Surprisingly, Sandy hasn't gone mad on her bed in a room of yellow wallpaper. She's made several beds, and she's lain — not lied — in every single one. God Bless America.
Lizzie Skurnick [The Old Hag]
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