The bored housewife as plot point.

The bored housewife as plot point.

I’ve read two books recently that started from much the same place: with a floundering stay-at-home mom.

The books made me realize that the bored housewife, though an oft-used trope, is rarely done well. Novelists and screenwriters use it cheaply, as a cliché.

But I’ve had dozens of conversations with floundering stay-at-home moms over coffee—my own friends, neighbors, acquaintances. Real people struggling with real things. Fiction doesn’t handle their situations very often, or very well, and that’s a shame. There’s so much to dig into there.

The two books I read started in the same place: with two young mothers, married with a couple of kids. Both agreed to move long distances for their husbands’ careers, leaving their friends, families, and careers behind. Both felt isolated; both felt like they were losing important parts of themselves.

That’s where the similarities end. The first novel is The Expats, a spy thriller by Chris Pavone. The wife chooses to quit her high-powered job (and that’s all I’ll say; no spoilers here) in order to accompany her husband to Luxembourg for his. She experienced her fair share of mother guilt over the years, which was just one reason she was happy to hang up her hat, but once she found herself firmly entrenched in the expat school-mum routine, she was lost, lonely, and bored.

Because she has time to kill, she begins to analyze her current life, and the lives of the handful of people she knows in Luxembourg, through the lens of her old profession. She’s shocked by what she sees. She can’t decide if there’s actually something there, or if she’s deluding herself, yearning for her old professional life.

The Expats seems far-fetched for a lot of people. (It’s a spy thriller. Aren’t they all?)

The second novel, Everyone is Beautiful, puts a much more relatable spin on unfulfilled stay-at-home motherhood.

I’ve said before that if I didn’t know better, I would think that Katherine Center is Brené Brown’s chosen pen name for the fiction she writes on the side to flesh out her work. (If you’ve never read Daring Greatly or The Gifts of Imperfection, go get yourself a copy right now. It doesn’t matter where you start; just pick one.)

In Everyone is Beautiful, Center visits a theme I encounter far more in my day-to-day conversations than in fiction: woman has kids, woman pours herself into kids, woman feels like she’s lost herself because her life feels like it’s all about the kids.

This particular wife has three young sons whom she loves fiercely, more extra pounds than she’d care to admit, and not a moment to spare for herself. (Or, unhappily for both, her husband.) In words that sound like a horrible cliché but are wholeheartedly spoken across Starbucks tables every day, she aches to feel like herself again—just for an hour or two. She makes a new friend and makes a plan. Of course nothing goes according to plan.

I gave Everyone is Beautiful a solid three stars: I liked it. But I was rather surprised to see the plethora of enthusiastic 4- and 5-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. I’m surprised so many readers rated it so highly: I’d thought it a bit too breezy, too formulaic, and the ending much too tidy for a 5-star rating.

Center’s strength is putting meat on the bones of the concepts that women wrestle with every day. She has some profound and eloquent insights into motherhood, which I very much appreciated. And she does it through the lens of fiction, which lets women look at their own lives with a little less attachment and a lot more objectivity than they’re accustomed to.

She makes the bored housewife relatable, and likable, and even a bit heroic.

So I wonder: does Everyone is Beautiful have such high reviews because readers desperately want to engage with this issue?

I would love to hear your thoughts in comments, as always. And if you can think of any novels that do a good job of engaging with this issue, please share those as well. 

Books mentioned in this post:

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63 comments

  1. Some people rate books for their entertainment value, not for some abstract “worthiness” measure. So 4 and 5 star ratings could be because of the breezy writing, the satisfying ending, and the likable main character, issues or not. Possibly why so many even dreadful romance novels have such high average ratings.

  2. Mary B. says:

    Re your final question: YES! And I have yet to find a book that realistically grapples with the challenges of being a SAHM. Or even presents a realistic SAHM character. They are typically presented as bored-but-wealthy socialites with a plot centered on either her or the husband’s extra-marital shenanigans. But where are the stories about women like me and other SAHMs I know? Who struggle to make ends meet on a single income, who remain committed to and passionate about our marriages no matter how in flux our day-to-day feelings might be about our spouses, who go to bed every night completely emptied from giving our all to our children. Who, in our darkest moments (which occur more often than we would ever admit), second guess our decision to stay at home at all. The only SAHM in literature that I have found even remotely relatable is Abbie in Bess Streeter Aldrich’s “Lantern in Her Hand.” And that was written almost a century ago!

    Ok rant over. Thank you for bringing this issue to light. Interested to see where the discussion goes.

  3. Kayris says:

    I’m with Mary. I find bored housewife fiction completely obnoxious. The housewives are always financially comfortable white women, all woe is me because they didn’t get their zygote into the 20K a year preschool and had to settle for the one that’s only 10K a year. And the husbands are usually clueless. I can’t be bothered to read about men who don’t know how to change diapers.

      • SoCalLynn says:

        I felt so alone ;-} in my intense dislike of The Nanny Diaries when it came out. Everyone in my fiction group thought it was so hilarious and heart-warming, while I found it horrifying. Glad I’m not the only one.

        • Liz says:

          I hated the Nanny Diaries, too! I flinch every time I see it at the used bookstore. And I’m grumpy about how much of the plot I remember. Grumble grumble grumble.

  4. Laura says:

    I read the Expats and was really surprised at how often the author hit the nail on the head with his description of life as a SAHM. I liked Everyone Is Beautiful for the same reason, but I thought the Expats had a lot more witty one-liners.

  5. Susanna says:

    Personally, I don’t want to read about women who ” struggle to make ends meet on a single income, who remain committed to and passionate about our marriages no matter how in flux our day-to-day feelings might be about our spouses, who go to bed every night completely emptied from giving our all to our children. Who, in our darkest moments (which occur more often than we would ever admit), second guess our decision to stay at home at all”. Why would I want to read a realistic portrayal of being a stay at home mom if I’m already living it? I read to go outside of my own life, not have my life replayed back to me!

    • Mary B. says:

      Hah, I definitely second the need for escapist literature! I have stacks of mystery novels around my apartment for that very reason! But books (at least for me) serve the equally essential purpose of validating my own life experience by giving me characters with whom I can identify. Being a SAHM is unique in that it is richly rewarding, but also…lonely. There are no co-workers with whom to vent frustrations about the job, and meeting other SAHMs can be difficult. Thus that hunger to connect with others over “shared experience” can often be fulfilled only through reading. And unfortunately, I don’t share the experiences of 99% of fictional SAHMs with their Jimmy Choo obsessions, endless martinis, and empty minds

      • Liz says:

        It would be difficult to come up with a realistic conflict to resolve if reflecting a SAHM’s life accurately. Every single day is filled with tiny conflicts and resolutions. Toddler takes off diaper, poops on floor. Mother has to choose whether to use the environmentally friendly essential oil fix, or just get the bleach. Four-year-old doesn’t like eggs today, but the doc says he’s too skinny. Mother has to choose whether to give him a bratwurst or defrost some grass-fed beef. Mother knows she has PMS and won’t make it through the day without freaking out at everyone in the household. Should she stay home rely on the TV more than usual, or take the brood into public so she is less likely to flip her lid?

        The difficulty with writing a full story arc for a SAHM is that when you’re in the middle of it, there’s no end in sight, which is great and terrifying simultaneously. Maybe a better story line would follow a Cranford model, with a series of simple vignettes that tell a charming story on the whole.

  6. Nancy says:

    I try not to give too much credit to the ratings that books receive. I know that for me personally, the rating I give a book on one day may be different than I’d give it on another. Why? It depends on my mindset when I’m reading it, what else I have going on in my life, etc. Sometimes I just need that lighter, breezy read that takes me away from my reality and it’s likely that if the book did that really well, I’ll rate it higher than if I had read it when I didn’t necessarily “need” that break. Know what I mean? Maybe that means I rate a book based more on it’s entertainment value…I know I’m that way with movies but that’s a whole other story.

    • Emily says:

      Agreed! I definitely find this to be the case. I also am super stingy with my five stars (I think I can count on both hands the number of times I have awarded that rating), whereas I think others may be more liberal in using high ratings. Even such a clear-cut system of numerical ratings has a lot of gray to it.

      • Beth says:

        That’s what I thought — that there are always going to be people who are pretty liberal with their five-star reviews. It reminds me of when you are asked as a customer to fill out an online review, and the employee tells you that they need five-star reviews ONLY because anything less than five stars is viewed as failure. I think a book is a failure if I don’t bother finish it. Even one-star is worth something. But I don’t think most other people think that way!

        Consequently, I’ve learned to go off of the average ratings on Goodreads more than the individual reviews (because you’ll always find the five-star ones). Anything lower than 3.80 makes me pretty wary. Though sometimes I still give it a try (Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother is a LOT more interesting and encouraging than I ever would have thought, for example!).

  7. MelissaJoy says:

    Is the SAHM character too “now” to write about well? This poem by Emily Dickinson popped into my head while reading this post.

    Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
    Success in Circuit lies
    Too bright for our infirm Delight
    The Truth’s superb surprise
    As Lightning to the Children eased
    With explanation kind
    The Truth must dazzle gradually
    Or every man be blind —

  8. Kelty Brittle says:

    Very interesting topic and points. I had not considered “the bored housewife” as a category of plots, but you’re right, it’s there. As I was reading this, I was thinking of a chat I had about Middle Grade/YA lit with a friend of mine who is a middle school librarian. She mentioned that in most of the books, the parents have to be absent (literally or just absorbed elsewhere due to circumstances) simply because a kid with involved parents wouldn’t be allowed the freedom that these adventures entail. I wonder if that’s the point here as well. So much of learning to be content as a stay at home mom is the the daily plodding. It’s choosing (or trying, at least) moment after moment to love, to serve and be effective right where you are. It’s not sexy. It’s not usually exciting, but it matters, to very real people. Like Susanna said, I’m trying to live it but I’m not sure I want to read a novel about it.

    • Anne says:

      I’ve heard the same thing about orphaned kid lit characters being way overrepresented, because losing a parent earns you instant readerly sympathy. But I’d never heard the explanation that absent parents make for easier adventuring. Interesting.

    • Liz says:

      You’re exactly right. You’ve summarized it perfectly!

      We read aloud to our kids all the time, and it’s very rare to find an in-tact family in children’s literature. Meet the Austins by Madeleine L’engle is one of the few that I can think of where both parents are supportive and loving but the story still centers on the kids’ lives. Maybe the Wimpy Kid Diaries? I think maybe he has both parents around. Anne, maybe you should do a post on this!

  9. I do read books for their amusement factor-that it takes me out of my world. But I do think that SAHM are portrayed very unrealistically. There is a whole demographic who stays home-not because we are wealthy and can, but because it is what we feel we need to do, or that God is calling us to, at this point in our lives. We are not unfulfilled, though we may be spent. We do pour our all into our chosen profession. I think that novelists are selling us short.

  10. Rebecca in PA says:

    I do know that Katherine Center and Brene Brown are friends in real life! I am not sure they still do, but at one time they lived in the same area. When “I Thought It Was Just Me But It Wasn’t” came out Brene did a series of podcasts like a book club, and Katherine Center was on one as a guest. It was how I became familiar with her work.

  11. Leah says:

    While I’m not a SAHM I can certainly understand the frustration. While I agree with Susanna’s comment about living a new life through characters (who doesn’t love escape? Some of my all-time favorite novels deal with characters who are my complete opposite!), a large part of my enjoyment comes from reading about characters who are just like me, characters I can relate to who are dealing with the same things I am. Unfortunately, I’ve discovered a large portion of novels with 26-year-old MCs include non-stop parties, fabulous apartments with amazing views in the heart of booming cities, trashy-chic designer clothes. …that’s not me.

    What were your thoughts on The Expats overall? I’ve seen lots of praise for it and I’m a big fan of thrillers – this one caught my eye multiple times but I’ve yet to take the plunge.

    • I suspect that any book with a character just like me as the main character would be pretty darn boring. Even books with characters dealing with the same things I’m dealing with. My problems are completely uninteresting, even to me!

      Of course, I also don’t find bored housewife novels to be very interesting, though I’ve only come across them as “bored housewife turned divorcee/widow murder investigator” (and it always turns out that she’s a widow because her husband was on the way to/from visit(ing) his mistress when he was killed), and haven’t read any since my mom stopped saving up her already-read mystery novels for me.

      • Liz says:

        “My problems are completely uninteresting, even to me!” That is the perfect sentence. If I were going to write a novel about a person just like me, I’d need to make up an interesting problem, stat! Otherwise I’d have to write a short story about how the fridge wasn’t shut tightly yesterday and the heat from the fridge light melted a plate of butter, which oozed all over. That would make for exciting prose!

    • Anne says:

      Overall, I liked The Expats (and so did my husband, and he’s pickier than I am!) It’s a debut novel, and those tend to be a bit bumpy, but his was a good one. I’ve heard his next novel The Accident is even better; it’s waiting for me at the library. 🙂

  12. liz n. says:

    I was a SAHM for the first ten years that I was a mom, and then had to go back to work when I got divorced. I’ve never liked the SAHM as a plot point because I’ve never read a book in which the SAHM was more than a slightly fleshed-out character. At some point in the book, the SAHM will say, do, or think something, that, even in an escapist read, makes me go, “Pffft, right.” I’ve also never read about a SAHM who is confident in her choice to stay home, even when things are difficult. Authors cannot seem to find that place that SAHMs find, where they know that staying home they have made the right and best choice for themselves and their families, even on those days when they feel overwhelmed, exhausted, frustrated, bored, unvalued by society, underappreciated at home, and about as sexy as the pile of laundry they have to wash. Additionally, the husbands generally fall into two categories: clueless, hapless male, or closed-off jerk. I especially get irritated when a female author doesn’t complete the SAHM and the husband, and making them hardly more than clichéd characters whose “complexity” is nothing more than having an odd habit or some other silly quirk. Generally, the book jacket reads, “Former corporate attorney Sara/Tara/Zoe/Sadie gave up a promising career as a fashion magazine editor/corporate attorney/nuclear physicist to stay home with her three beautiful children. Her husband Max/Alex/Adam/Ben just got promoted at his law firm/medical practice/university, and they’ve moved into a gorgeous Victorian revival/Spanish Colonial/French country fixer-upper in the coveted Up-And-Coming Neighborhood Of Literary Choice. Everything seems perfect. Sara/Tara/Zoe/Sadie should be happy. But one day, (insert seemingly random incident here) makes her wonder if all is at it seems, making Sara/Tara/Zoe/Sadie question what she gave up and who she really is. Can happiness be found in a manicured cul-de-sac, or will Sara/Tara/Zoe/Sadie have to break free of her self-imposed bonds?” Blah, blah, blah. The Bored Housewife is a plot construct 98% guaranteed to make me pass up a book.

  13. Anne says:

    I will have to read it and find out if that’s what is driving the reviews. You’ve made me want to read it, at least for this:

    “She makes the bored housewife relatable, and likable, and even a bit heroic.”

    In addition, I like other worlds and people for the escapist value, for sure, but I just love something written so well that I can see myself and my surroundings in some sort of beauty. (That was surely bad grammar, but I must dash.)

  14. Okay, Katherine Center’s book has been on my Amazon wish list and I’ve just decided to buy it BECAUSE of your review. I enjoyed the sample very much.

    I love, love, LOVE escapist female fiction. I really am not interested in super serious reads because life is already hard and that’s my relaxation time.

    Also, Brene’s friend? Any friend of Brene’s is a friend of mine 🙂

    I give lots of 4s on Goodreads. I like a well-written story with good editing (I find so many books that are just terribly punctuated…) and a satisfying end. It doesn’t have to all work out well (although I love that! What can I say? I’m a J!) but it must have some resolution.

    Also, can we talk about Blue Jasmine for a minute? I, an ESTJ, hated the non-ending; my INFP friend loved it. Did you watch it, Anne, and what did you think?

    • Anne says:

      I also give a lot of 4s. I give 3s to books I like, 4s to books I think are pretty darn great, and 5s for change-your-life material. I’m pretty stingy with my 5s.

      I haven’t seen Blue Jasmine.

  15. Erin says:

    I actually read Everyone Is Beautiful last month, but had to go re-read the beginning to remind myself what it was actually about when I saw your blog post. Totally forgettable! (To me, anyway.) And I am a SAHM. I agree that I was boggled by the fabulous reviews. It was fine. Readable.

    • Ana says:

      I love Bletchley Circle!! It’s a little bloody, especially if you’re HSP, but I just close my eyes and ears during those parts, and enjoy the rest. A great show about a bunch of smart gals!

  16. Deborah says:

    As an expat wife and a SAHM, I found The Expats so, so believable. So many of the descriptions of initial expat difficulties (multiple trips for cleaning supplies, IKEA furniture assembly, roundabouts, language woes) made me say “Yes!” This author gets it. As this really written by a man? Amazing!” I thought that the author did an especially good job of portraying the tension educated expat SAHMs feel about staying at home. A lot of us had high-powered careers back home, but the expat money our husbands were offered was better than double incomes back home. Now we have “Not Permitted To Work” written on our visas and we are conflicted about it. Well, some of us are! Some of us revel in the coffee dates and the two hour workouts and the spa mornings.

    • Liz K. says:

      I have to say, coffee dates, two hour workouts and spa dates sound heavenly to me! As a working mom who only seems to take time off to go to kids’ performances, dentist appointments, and cover the teacher-in-service days, large chunks of free time sound great! I suppose it would get old quickly, and I certainly understand the conflict you’re talking about. I got my Master’s and had my son a couple months later. For 3.5 years I was certain my degree was decaying and becoming worthless. I wish I could go back and assure myself that it was all going to be okay–that I would find meaningful work and eventually the kids would tie their own shoes. As my friend often reminded me, the days were long, the years were short. I guess I should go pick up The Expats now!

  17. Kendra says:

    I have been wanting to read Expats for awhile because of several mentions on BOTNS podcast and because living overseas sounds so intriguing to me.
    Anne, I’m glad you gave your rating system in the comments above. I hadn’t quite figured out my system for how many stars I give out but that lines up with how I’ve been rating books. I gave To Kill a Mockingbird 5 stars because I could easily imagine rereading it and taking notes and there were so many life lessons. I finished reading Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls last night because while I really enjoyed it and read through it quickly I wasn’t sure if I would ever reread it (though I might).
    Speaking of Half Broke Horses, here is a mom that I enjoyed reading about and is hardly stereotypical. It’s based on Jeanette Walls own grandmother. She was sometimes a SAHM though she was definitely a maximizer. I was fascinated by her outlook on and approach to mothering and later on by her relationship with her daughter. Also, this is a story with a husband who is a true partner. I hope to read Glass Castle this month and then her other book.
    By the way, I’m always curious, how do you go about pulling together your reviews? Do you take a lot of notes? I ordered the reading journal you posted about earlier but is that something that aids you in recalling points in a book or is it more just for fun?

  18. Kelli Bullock says:

    I was wondering if you have any good “stay at home mom” fiction? I have a challenge to read a book with the protagonist with the same profession and well if this is all we have it might be really had to fulfill this challenge. Tried to read Slummy Mummy but couldn’t get that far even listening to the audio book.

    • Anne says:

      That is TOUGH. I just did some googling and came up with more of nothing. (One one of the reasons I wrote this post is I was struck by how rare the stay at home mom as protagonist is.)

      I can think of plenty of novels that feature stay at home moms as characters, but not as THE main character.

      • Kelli Bullock says:

        Yes, it is really sad that this genre is so trashy. Oh well maybe I will just find some other way to fill in this part of my challenge for the year. Might just have to read the second book in the Mother Daughter Bookclub and call it good.

  19. Heidi says:

    I’m an expat wife (trailing spouse is the term) in Mumbai, and have always stayed home as much as possible, homeschooling in the States to boot. I just finished Expats, and had to go Google the author a couple chapters in to find out if Chris was short for Christopher or Christine. I loved it for the authenticity of his observations about the SAHM gig and the expat gig. He totally gets the angst that comes from not merely being bored but being forced into boredom by the host country’s visa restrictions. I’m personally not bored (the kids are in school for the first time, and I’m still loving all the alone time), but I see lots of bored women huddled in groups at the school pickup (“unapproachable Japanese” for the win!). Also, I find it typical that the working spouse works a LOT, either because the position or the culture requires it, which makes things that much more boring and soul-crushing, IMO.

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