The trailing spouse has been a perennial subject of memoirs and novels, usually involving women who find their way after some ups and downs. Marcie Maxfield centers her new novel, Em’s Awful Good Fortune, on what she calls the tagalong wife, addressing this topic—one with which she apparently has considerable personal experience—with a combination of humor and frustration.
Emma, or Em as she’s known, is married to a former rock band roadie who now oversees the construction of expo sites around the world. Gregory, or Gee, was a doting husband before the couple had kids and he started to find work abroad. When Gee is offered an eleven month job in Japan, Em chooses to stay home with their infant daughter and focus on her career in the music and publishing industries. But the separation is not easy and before she knows it, Em has become a career tagalong wife, living in places like Tokyo, suburban Seoul, and Paris.
Since we’ve been married, we’ve lived in five cities in four countries across three continents. And that doesn’t count the times Gee has moved overseas without the family, leaving me alone with a full-time job and a kid or two. This is not a normal life. Maybe it sounds spoiled and petty not to be wowed by our good fortune, but in a way, the good fortune is all his. Every time we relocate, I quit my job; every time we return, Gee moves up a rung on the corporate ladder.
Em does what she can to acclimate her kids to these new environments, encouraging them to try new food and enjoy the perks of traveling that come with living in places that allow quick getaways to a range of countries. Yet Em witnesses heartbreak when her daughter Ruby returns to Los Angeles, only to find that her best friend there has a new BFF while Ruby has been away in Paris for several years. These unexpected parts of parenting fall solely on Em, as Gee doesn’t seem to be very involved in his children’s emotional well-being.
It’s when their kids are in their twenties that the couple finally can enjoy a posting abroad that no longer includes all the issues involved in relocating children overseas. They move to Shanghai, where Gee has taken a multi-year assignment. Em finds Shanghai more glamorous and high-tech than anywhere she has lived. It doesn’t take her long to adjust to this new city.
My new friends have professional backgrounds in marketing or come from Detroit; they practice yoga or have children the same age as mine back in the States. We sign up for lectures on how to eat safe. Attend luncheons like the one at M on the Bund, very old-school British, high tea with a view, order the poached salmon. Over cake and coffee, we listen to the chef, an expat from London, talk about butterflies in gardens. Apparently, this is a good thing, an indicator of sorts.
But the honeymoon doesn’t last long. Gee is as busy at work as ever and it’s more and more evident that he’s more married to his job than he is to Em whose own prospects are hemmed in by visa restrictions, which are common for any trailing spouse no matter nationality or posting. The sections set in Tokyo, Seoul, Paris, and Los Angeles provide the entertaining backstory of Em and Gee’s marriage and their challenges with juggling careers with young kids. But more could have been made of the Shanghai section where Maxfield starts and ends the book: it’s the place where the couple can finally get their marriage back, and that doesn’t come easily. Maxfield has referred to her novel as “autofiction”, yet plot and characterization might have benefited from a little more “fiction” and less “auto”.
That said, Maxfield is also a playwright known for infusing humor and wit into feminist issues that are not always very funny. In her novel, she accomplishes the same as she addresses with honesty and empathy the dark side of becoming a tagalong spouse.