Pam Lewis’ latest novel sprawls from Amsterdam to Argentina to the United States, carrying along a slim, quiet protagonist who is swept wherever fortune takes her. In the opening pages of A Young Wife, our protagonist Minke is sent from her rural home in the Netherlands to serve as a nursemaid to the dying wife of a wealthy stranger. After the wife’s death, Minke is shocked when the bereaved husband proposes to her. Nevertheless she accepts his proposal, and the pair set sail for Argentina days later. The remainder of the novel details the arc of their relationship, which is loosely based on the relationship of Lewis’ grandparents.
While there are singular moments of beauty in A Young Wife, a quick and tidy resolution to several central conflicts may leave some readers unsatisfied.One of the bright spots is the moment Minke has on a moonlit beach in Argentina. “A great deal had changed in her,” the narrator tells us. And then, wonderfully, we see the change. Rather than the homesick girl she used to be, she is “glad for the raw expanse of sea,” so different from the Netherlands with its “buoys and boats and noises.” The writing here, as in other places in the novel, is so very fine. We hear the beating of the ocean, and our hearts catch as we imagine the contrast between Minke’s two worlds.
But occasionally, despite these glorious moments, the story simply lags. And then rather abruptly the novel simplifies and solves all our heroine’s problems. While we’re supposed to attribute Minke’s triumphant breakthrough to her realization of a strength that lay dormant throughout the early years of her marriage, critical readers may find Lewis’ solutions far-reaching.
Nonetheless Lewis takes readers on a stirring journey. The opening chapters of A Young Wife are especially strong as we meet Minke and practically feel her fall in love with an older, mysterious and very romantic man. For all the qualms readers may have about the trajectory of the book, its images are undeniably alluring, like the image of Minke in Argentina, holding her child in her arms, enjoying a warm night on a foreign shore.