At first glance, Alice Buckle seems to have her picture-perfect life by the tail—a handsome, Ivy League-educated husband, two darling children, a rewarding career as a drama teacher and a comfortable home in Oakland, California. But for the angst-filled 44-year-old heroine of Melanie Gideon’s first novel, Wife 22, the arrival of a mysterious e-mail survey forces her to acknowledge that the indignities of middle age run far deeper than her suddenly droopy eyelids.

A riveting, tragically comic narrative that is told via the e-mail correspondence between Alice—who has agreed to participate in a marriage study—and an enigmatic male researcher, Wife 22 will resonate with those who rejoice in reading fiction that realistically unravels the lovely messiness of married life. From the moment readers meet Alice’s husband, William, it is clear that a storm is brewing behind the silent stoicism. Indeed, when William has a meltdown and loses his cool—and his job at a tony advertising firm—the family soon finds itself suddenly on a slippery descent towards emotional and financial disaster.

Soon, Alice finds herself seeking solace and escape from the pain of her domestic Armageddon by becoming increasingly dependent upon her flirtatious e-mail relationship with “Researcher 101,” a married man who seems to be everything her troubled husband William is not. As Alice writes, “On the subject of not hiding, I have to tell you that to be asked such intimate questions—to be listened to so closely—to have my opinion and my feelings be valued and account for something is profound.”

While Alice can be annoyingly self-absorbed at times, her naval-gazing tendencies are redeemed by an overwhelmingly good heart and unfailing devotion to her children and best friend, Nedra, who serves as the novel’s wise and warm shaman, speaking truth amid the folly and madness. Whether Alice can extend her gracious and optimistic nature toward her husband is the crux of Wife 22, and thus this reviewer will remain mum, to avoid spoiling the novel’s exquisitely unexpected ending.

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