I’m not sure how it happened, but way too many Millennial women in the United States have been raised to be people-pleasers in a manner that horrifies my late Gen X/geriatric Millennial sensibilities. Somehow, they’ve been persuaded by “Lean In” and “yes and” culture (with a healthy dose of late-stage capitalism) to think that having it all means running yourself ragged and putting everyone but yourself first. Ironically, that’s the kind of thing they’d pretend to disparage in Boomers while doing the very same themselves (and I know several Gen Xers who also fall into this trap yet, on balance, make up a much smaller percentage of our cohort.)
The three New York City women at the heart of this book exemplify this problem, all quietly seething at the perceived injustices of their lives. Lauren kicked out her husband after discovering his secret sexual life, and is further blindsided when he chooses to make inappropriate relationship choices after their divorce. Independently wealthy Madeline has spent most of her adult life being the mother she never had for her now-teenage daughter Arabella, and doesn’t know what to do when her ex-husband in London starts talking about bringing their daughter to come live with him for a year. Sophie is struggling to pay the bills for her two kids while her deadbeat ex and his gorgeous, accomplished new wife and baby have the Instagram-perfect life she can’t help obsessing over.
One drunken dinner between the three friends persuades Lauren to launch a service called The Wife App, sort of a Task Rabbit on steroids. After the women complain about the thankless Mental Load they’ve always taken on as wives and mothers — mostly in planning, organizing, and mentally and emotionally supporting their families — tech-oriented Lauren decides to build an app for a service that takes over. After all, if you can hire housekeepers and nannies, why not hire a family organizer and counselor, essentially a Wife without all the sex and romance? Gloria Steinem would be proud.
There are road bumps along the way, but this is ultimately a feel-good novel in the vein of the classic movie The First Wives Club. Our heroines go from being hot messes who can barely communicate their needs when it matters to confident women who finally understand that you have to take care of yourself in order to be able to take care of other people. To be honest, the first third or so of this book was almost unreadable for me. While our protagonists have legitimate grievances, a lot of their issues could have been resolved by not being a coward about having difficult but necessary conversations. At least they tend to communicate with their children in a mature manner, even though I think Sophie was definitely spoiling her eldest child by constantly cleaning up after him when he was being lazy and stinky.
The last two thirds of the book mostly make up for the dire first part, as the women learn to stop defining themselves by other people. While the mindset becomes more and more progressive as the novel continues, there are still parts regarding sex that betray a conservative worldview. And while I appreciate the nod to the fact that gig jobs are exploitative, as well as the presence of a sliding scale for people who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to afford the services, I felt that those topics were less tackled than tacked on. Sure, addressing the evils of the afore-mentioned late-stage capitalism might be well outside the scope of a novel like this, but having the subjects essentially tied up neatly with a bow only made the book feel more like fantasy than contemporary fiction.
Overall, I’m glad I read this book, which affirmed my own life choices in being stubborn and “selfish” in having a relatively unconventional family life. Keeping up with the Joneses has never been of interest to my husband and me, and raising our kids to be considerate, happy and functioning members of society is our number one priority. Also, do schools in NYC (or anywhere for that matter) really insist on home-baked goods so often? Over in my Maryland county, store-bought is de rigeur, if only for the accurate ingredient and allergen information required by law.
Anyway, The Wife App is a fun, fluffy book with a well-meaning feminist bent that reinforces an important message: stop harming yourselves in order to make other people’s lives easier. Relationships are give and take, not give until you’re emptied out. Cost-benefits analyses do not make you a selfish person, and anyone who tells you otherwise is subscribing to a system intent on keeping you passive while others continue to exploit you. These are all crucial lessons conveyed by this novel in a light, lecture-free manner that lots of people, wives or otherwise, still need to learn.
The Wife App by Carolyn Mackler was published June 27 2023 by Simon & Schuster and is available from all good booksellers, including