For Dorothea Benton Frank, the Wednesday morning after Mark Sanford won a decisive victory to reclaim his old House seat was an unhappy time. The fact that we’d scheduled an interview with her that day was strictly a coincidence, though it seemed remarkably apropos considering the subject of Frank’s new book, The Last Original Wife.
The novel tackles the issues of mistresses and mid-to-late life divorce head-on. It’s a marked departure from some of Frank’s lighter works, yet still characteristically “Dottie.”
Frank doesn’t hide her displeasure at Sanford’s win. She was pulling for Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert, Frank’s neighbor both on Sullivan’s Island and in New Jersey. But even without that insider knowledge, anyone could infer Frank’s take on the Sanford affair by reading The Last Original Wife.
The book opens in the waiting room of a psychiatrist’s office, where Leslie Carter has an appointment regarding her crumbling marriage to her husband, Wesley. As Leslie waits, a frantic woman barrels into the room, pleading for more time with the doctor, bellowing about finding her husband in their daughter’s bed with two teenage girls. From there, the prevailing theme becomes fairly clear: When does unhappiness in a marriage reach a precipice?
“I think many married people come to a point when they accept that their time is finite,” Frank says. “They look around and wonder if they are living out their lives as they really want to.”
For Leslie, it was an accident in Edinburgh which left her stuck in a manhole with a broken arm. Her husband, who was rapt in conversation with his friend’s new — much younger — wife Cornelia, took nearly 45 minutes to realize she was missing. Wes later leaves Les in the hospital alone with Cornelia so he can keep his tee time on the Old Course.
The episode was based on an experience of a friend of Frank’s, though exaggerated for the novel. The plausibility of such instances and of Wes’ refusal to let Les work may be a stretch, however, for women of the Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook’s COO) age. Leslie only finds the strength to leave after discovering Wes has successfully been hiding their financial assets, which exceed $22 million.
Asked about the scenario and whether it was meant to be extreme, Frank asserts that most marriages are not equitable. “Very traditional men, sons of super religious types from very small towns, still consider wives not working to be a testament to their manly ability to provide,” Frank says. “And Wes was a mega control freak as well, which is why she didn’t know about the money. And she was a wimp for a long time until she got really furious.”
Age and generational differences play out through the rest of the novel. Frank even seems to poke fun at the older generation, with a line about Lady Gaga and a meat dress and a paragraph about “opportunistic bitches.”
The language, though fitting coming from the 50-something protagonist who leads most of the story, is biting every so often, providing a refreshing break from lines that can feel dowdy.
For anyone who worries about a lack of Charleston references, fear not. There are enough Ashley Hall quips and Chalmers Street talk to put those thirsty for Lowcountry descriptors at ease. Charleston author Josephine Pinckney likewise plays a larger role in the story, as an obvious heroine and role model to the often-meek Les. If readers haven’t read Pinckney’s book Three O’Clock Dinner yet, the novel will inspire a look. And maybe a second thought about their marriages, too.