A Wife of Noble Character by Yvonne Georgina Puig

Hardcover, 320 pages
Expected publication: August 2nd 2016 by Henry Holt & Co.
     I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Henry Holt & Co., via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Boy, was I looking forward to reading this one! With its attractive cover promising intrigue, social commentary and references to Wharton, I was sold like a new car and eagerly clicked ‘Request’ on NetGalley the moment I came across it. But upon reading it, I came away with a mixed bag of emotions toward it that left me a bit dissatisfied. What I liked about Puig’s A Wife of Noble Character was that it didn’t follow the trajectory I thought it would, and that’s always a plus. I had an idea in my head of how it would all play out when I first met all of the characters. And, yes, while this is a self-proclaimed “classic love story,” (a label which basically lets you know how the story will end) the twists and turns that happened to get to that point were often surprising. The biggest plus of A Wife for me, by far, was the last 20% of the read, which pulled this read back from the abyss for me. Without giving anything away, one of the pivotal turning points in the novel did make me respect, if not like, Vivienne a little more.

Vivienne is a character who is considered by all in her sphere to be beautiful. All she has ever been—or accomplished—in life is being “beautiful,” thus her aspirations in life go hand-in-hand with that. She struggles against this internally, but it’s not as deep as it sounds. Really, she’s trying to decide if being a Texas gold-digger is really her calling—though she still hasn’t settled on whether or not she would consider herself to be such. Enter her gentlemen callers, the men in her life who have similar views on her shown in polarizing ways but who end up shaping the way that she views herself and what she wants from her own life.

Now, I must say that in reviewing A Wife of Noble Character, I realized that the problem I had with it was the packaging. It all began and ended, so to speak, with the packaging! Reading it, I wanted it to be more; I wanted it to live up to the lovely wrapping that it was dressed and presented in, but it didn’t—not for me. This wasn’t some poignant and charmingly funny Edith Wharton spin-off—some modernized version that still had some intellectual bite. No, this was pure chick lit, highlighted by the fact that the protagonist, Vivienne, seemed to want sympathy and commiseration for the everyday life hardships that she experienced, as if she were somehow exempt from real-world issues. (Enter borderline shopaholic heroine who frets over whether or not to flat iron her hair.) Annoying, but often true of chick lit, which is why had I known that this was behind door #1, I would’ve run in the other direction for sure. More importantly, I can’t imagine that this won’t be an issue for this novel to some extent in the future. How are readers of chick lit who might really enjoy this read to know that they’ve found their match if it isn’t packaged correctly? And how many readers will be annoyed to no end once they figure out that they’ve been duped by a literarily slanted book flap and cover?

Meanwhile, this one started out in one of the strangest manners I’ve come across in a while. It just dropped the reader in, right in the middle of a college campus quad, not knowing who the characters were or where their motivations lay. I felt like I’d stumbled into the middle of something and had a hard time getting into the swing of things in those first few chapters, because I kept feeling that maybe I’d missed something—that the format of the first chapter had been purposeful and not just awkwardly done. Character entrances like that can work well and make the reader to feel that they’re really in the middle of the action! This just felt like I’d started the read in the middle of chapter 2.

All in all, if you’re looking for glimpses of Edith Wharton, you won’t find her here. That I can promise you (if you’re like me and you think something like Afterward [1910] when you think Wharton). Nevertheless, the writing was energetic and buoyant in its WASPiness—in the same vein as other recent releases The Nest and Eligible. Of course, it exploited every cliché of Texas life you’ve ever heard—trust me, I know, being born and raised in Texas. But clichés are clichés for a reason, so sometimes they work well when re-examined, re-purposed, re-done, re-imagined, but I didn’t see much of that here. If pushed just a tad further it could’ve been satire in some areas, but it fell a little short in that department too. I felt like I knew these characters and understood them, because their motives were simple. But I never felt for them or rooted for them. Really, I was just watching them and their drama play out but never felt a part of it, never felt invested in the outcome.

So, between the light-heartedness of the narrative and the mild feeling of being duped, A Wife grabbed herself 3 stars that would’ve been shaky at best if not for the pivot it took toward the end. 3 stars ***

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