It has become a ritual as predictable as the turning of the seasons: A married politician is caught, sometimes literally, with his pants down, and all eyes turn to his long-suffering wife, she of the dark sunglasses and tight-lipped jaw. More often than not, she stands beside him, holding his hand while the news cameras click away. Is her hand secretly digging its nails into his palm? It's impossible to say. After all, loyalty can be a maddening and mysterious thing. Here are three books that grapple with the complexities of standing by your man.
Patty, the title character in Stuart O'Nan's novel The Good Wife, is 27 and pregnant when she gets a call in the middle of the night that will change her life forever: Her husband Tommy, it seems, has been burgling empty houses at night with a friend. Except that on this particular night the house wasn't empty, and now an old woman is dead. When the friend takes a plea deal, Tommy heads off to prison for 28 years. But Patty is not about to abandon the father of her child. Instead, she resolutely commits to Tommy, spending the better part of the next three decades navigating the indignities of prison pat downs and conjugal visits — never once asking her husband about his role in the murder. O'Nan's portrait of the aging Patty — world-weary, but forever hopeful for the next appeal — is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking.
Collect calls from prison are expensive, but at least it's some form of contact. Mathilde, the heroine of Sebastian Japrisot's A Very Long Engagement, isn't even sure her fiance is alive. The last time anyone saw her man, a World War I soldier accused of treason, he was being marched with four other Frenchmen into "no man's land" — a deadzone between the French and German lines. But that was back in January 1917. Two years later, the war has ended and Mathilde learns from a dying sergeant that at least one of those five men is still alive. The odds aren't great, but Mathilde is maniacal in her determination. She embarks on a decades-long quest to try to cut through the fog of war — and to resolve the fate of her lost love and his four compatriots.
Meanwhile, Alice McDermott grapples with an entirely different type of loyalty in Charming Billy. Her title character is a lovable alcoholic whose fidelity to the bottle has killed him. When the book opens, Billy's friends and family members have gathered "somewhere in the Bronx" to mourn him — and to praise his faithfulness to Eva, his fiancee who passed away in Ireland decades earlier. Over the years, Billy's Irish Catholic family has used Eva's death to excuse his drinking. But we learn early on in McDermott's gorgeous novel, Eva didn't die. And as McDermott shows, family myths can be as tough to chase down as any addiction, and loyalty taken too far can be the worst kind of enabling.
Are the characters in these three books saints — or suckers? It's hard to say. After all, extreme loyalty can sometimes feel like a tug-of-war between the heart and the brain — and even though we know we should cheer on the brain, it's hard to fault anyone for acting with a pure heart.
Bridget Bentz Sizer is a writer in Baltimore. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Discovery.com and PBS.org. She is also a producer at NPR.org.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lacey Mason.