One after another, three women marry the same wrong man, each believing her life will be complete once she becomes Mrs. Ken Kimble. In a provocative first novel titled simply Mrs. Kimble, Jennifer Haigh uses portraits of these three characters to question why women think they have to marry.
"Ken Kimble is what I call a serial marrier," Haigh says by phone from Boston, where she moved after graduating from the Iowa Writers Workshop last year. "He has these serious character flaws, but he has no problem finding women to marry." Haigh has firm opinions about why such a man can always find a bride. "We're raised as women to value marriage and family," she says, "and to believe that unless we've achieved those things, the rest of our accomplishments don't really count for very much."
The somewhat controversial subject of the novel, the spare beauty of her writing and the fact that everybody knows someone like Ken made Haigh's manuscript a hot item in the publishing world—the novel sold only a month after she gave it to an agent. "Publishing it was a lot easier than writing it, and a lot faster," Haigh says wryly.
Like most overnight successes, Haigh has practiced her craft all her life. As a bookish little girl growing up in Barresboro, Pennsylvania, she kept journals. Later, at Dickinson College, she began to write fiction seriously. "Very seriously and very badly," she says. "I look back at the stories I wrote as a very young writer, and they're exactly like everybody else's the evil boyfriends, the tragic breakups, the fights with my parents." No story was as good as she wanted it to be. She put fiction aside for five or six years. "I grew up and had a job and worked a little bit, then came back to it when I had a bit more to say."
During those intervening years, Haigh studied in France on a Fulbright scholarship, worked as an editor at Self magazine and taught yoga, which she still practices faithfully. "It's a great, great help for writers in terms of slowing down, being patient and staying focused on the work. Hard, hard things to do."
Before writing Mrs. Kimble, Haigh had been successful with short stories, publishing in Good Housekeeping magazine and various literary journals. Moving from the short story to the novel was not an easy process; two novels she calls "miscarriages" preceded this one.
Haigh, who is 34 and single, maintains that nothing from her personal life inspired her debut novel. "I had this very well-adjusted upbringing. My parents are still married to each other. They live in the same house I grew up in. None of that made it into Mrs. Kimble."
Yet, somehow, Haigh has a gift for empathizing with all Ken's wives. Birdie, the first, is a Southern girl who in 1961, at age 19, fell for the handsome choir director at her all-girl Bible college and bore him two children. The second wife, Joan, is Jewish and a writer for Newsweek, brought South by her father's death in Florida and detained there by breast cancer. Ken steps into her life in 1969, and ends up the richer for it. Third is Dinah, who as a teenager baby-sat for Birdie and Ken's children. After a chance re-encounter, they marry in 1979.
Birdie seems almost too extreme in her isolation—never having known a white woman who worked, for example—and somewhat unlikely in her youthful romance with a black neighbor. Joan is perfect in her imperfection, as is Dinah, with her unsightly birthmark.
The wives are different types, from different generations, all with different expectations of men. Yet, all three fall for this same worthless blue-eyed charmer, seemingly attuned to their needs but actually caring very little about them.
The idea for the novel began with Birdie. "The first scene in the book I wrote," Haigh says, "was the scene in the store where Birdie is drunk and Charlie is helping her buy groceries . . . Years ago, I was living in Tampa, Florida, and I saw something similar happen in the little corner store a drunk mother with a small child. And that stuck with me."
The scene also sticks with the reader, as do other elements of this clever book.
Anne Morris is a writer in Austin, Texas.