Mary Bascomb is a proud, independent woman – and she has a right to be. After all, not only is she an accomplished teacher in the local school district, she has raised a son (Ralph) solely by herself after her husband died early in the marriage. Her plans for her son include law school like his father and grandfather before him. Ralph is presently completing his (pre-law) university degree, and the only thing left now is to find Ralph a wife… but he won’t need to lift a finger as Mary Bascomb has a wife picked out for him, groomed awaiting the proper time (perhaps after law school?) in the wings.
Obviously, Mary Bascomb is a woman who likes to be in control:
“…she was the one who always had to see to everything. Ralph was so careless and heedless. He was a good boy, Ralph was, but not quick to see changes in his mother’s mood, absorbed in his own trivial interests. She often had to exaggerate her expression before he took note of it. Although it was true that when he had been selfish and careless and had hurt her, he was uneasy till she allowed herself to smile and forgive him and be cheerful again. Yes, Ralph was much easier to manage than many boys would have been.”
After a particularly trying day at school with parents waiting in line to speak to her about their child’s progress (or lack thereof) in her classroom, Mrs. Bascomb finds a letter waiting in her mailbox, a letter from Ralph. He divulges the news that he has married a girl he met from his college town.
What is Mrs. Bascomb to do? After a long, agonizing, sleepless night, Mrs. Bascomb grits her teeth and sets her course. Ever the one to ‘do the right thing’ she sends a telegram welcoming the young couple into her home.
Needless to say, this book is full of surprises. Not only is Lottie *not* the choice Mary Bascomb picked for her son, but Lottie is flighty, careless in speech and manners, slothful, and generally an all-around poor choice for her son! What to do?
Mrs. Bascomb’s life begins to change as she returns home from a long day at school to a disorderly house, dirty dishes in the sink and dinner to prepare (by herself) for the three of them. Despite the reader’s initial reaction to Mrs. Bascomb’s character (as she dismisses so insensitively the concerns of after-school parental crowd in the first chapter), one’s sympathy cannot but be engaged as this novel progresses. It is heartbreakingly honest in its expose of Mrs. Bascomb’s determination to make a success of her son’s marriage.
It is not until Lottie has a baby that things begin to change for Mary Bascomb. Seeing her beloved, deceased husband in her granddaughter’s eyes, she begins to find purpose and meaning behind her martyrdom… and danger. Her granddaughter cannot be left to such a mother as her son’s wife is to raise! What to do?
Full of surprises, Dorothy Canfield (Fisher) is an accomplished author, bringing characters to life, exposing human dilemmas and revealing motivations that are often hidden from oneself but visible to others. She deftly weaves together a story that moves quickly (I just had to find out how this was going to be resolved!) Although this novel is not the light, sweetly happily-ever-after type of literature (in fact, it was quite exasperating to read at times! the choices made in this novel are sooo frustrating to see!), it is also realistic and thought provoking. The question is not “what mother does not want the best for her son”, but rather, “to what lengths should a mother go to ensure the well-being of her family”? Although with the best of intentions (despite her faults), Mary Bascomb finds herself consumed by guilt and constantly weighing the consequences of her ‘sacrificial love’. It is also possible to see how her character and even outlook changes as her circumstances bring her to the point of decisions that not only affect her family but, although un-looked for, also herself.
Although I never did find myself appreciating Lottie (or even Mrs. Bascomb herself) very much, I found understanding and sympathy for their plight as I came to the final pages. In “Her Son’s Wife”, the author does not try to whitewash Mary Bascomb’s manipulative behavior; rather, she leaves it to the reader to decide whether her influence upon her daughter-in-law is worth the sacrifice to save her granddaughter.
“She grew afraid of a question which asked itself of her, like a far-away half-heard voice, in moments when her mind was not intent on active thoughts. It asked her, ‘What is the use of being so right, and others being so wrong, if it does not help you to serve the one human being who needs you?”
I will be looking for more of Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s work!