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Mishap, murder, lives put on hold

The Good Wife
By Stewart O'Nan
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 312 pp., $24

The premise sounds like a slug line from tabloid TV: ''Women who love men doing 25 years to life." But nothing about Stewart O'Nan's exhilarating novel ''The Good Wife" will make you want to turn on your television. Lean, gritty, and beautifully imagined, O'Nan's novel is a sterling reminder of fiction's singular power -- to take us deep into the lives of people we might never otherwise see. It's a wise and compassionate book, reminiscent of the best of Russell Banks.

The good wife of the title is Patty Dickerson; the novel opens one night in the mid-1970s when Patty, pregnant, learns that her husband, Tommy, has been arrested in a burglary gone wrong. The homeowner, a blind widow, has been killed, her house set on fire. The next day, the cops show up at Patty and Tommy's shabby rental house and haul away most of what they own, which turns out to be stolen. By the end of the week, Patty is evicted, the rest of her belongings and all her hopes for an ordinary life headed for storage.

O'Nan's novel takes a number of interesting risks, starting with its setup. The story makes no bones about Tommy's guilt, nor offers much mitigating sympathy for his plight. He clearly deserves what he gets -- or at least some version of it -- and though the machinations of his trip through the courts provide some narrative tension, the outcome is inevitable.

It takes O'Nan over a hundred pages to get Tommy locked away, and I worried whether he could, at this point, sustain the book's length -- not just in pages, but in years. But somewhere, I realized, the book had quietly and effectively shifted gears. With his sentence, Tommy fades from the novel as a character: He becomes, instead, a kind of human prison term. The story is all Patty's, and how, having made the decision to ride out her husband's time, she holds their family together.

As a sociological study of the life of an inmate's family, ''The Good Wife" is so persuasively affecting I found myself questioning virtually every aspect of the American penal system -- despite the fact that, had I read about a crime like Tommy's in the papers, I would have been the first person to bid him a heartless bon voyage. Patty's life without Tommy is, in effect, a parallel prison term; with a young child and no money, she's taken in by her aging mother and supports herself, barely, through a series of grueling jobs. The irony is that the same qualities that make her so admirable -- her unwavering loyalty and adaptability -- sentence her to a life most people would walk away from.

O'Nan structures the novel in a series of staccato chapters, some shorter than a page. Though at times this feels mannered, on the whole it's a clever device for such a tale, affording narrative velocity to what is, ultimately, a story of raw endurance. Time moves quickly but without feeling glossed. For five years Patty makes the weekly trek to visit her husband with their son, Casey; their entire marriage is conducted within the confines of the prison visiting room, where they are allowed only a quick embrace and Tommy is permitted to hold his son for mere moments. By the time they qualify for the Family Reunion Program -- weekend-long visits in a trailer inside the prison walls -- Casey is in elementary school, and Patty and Tommy are so physically unaccustomed to each other that it takes three such visits before they can actually make love. When, on the first visit, they all sit down together to watch a movie on TV -- ''[Patty] and Tommy take over the couch, cuddling, sharing a sweating cup of lemonade and an ashtray" -- my heart sang for them. I can't remember a scene of domestic life more quietly affecting.

The vicissitudes of the judicial system accumulate with arbitrary heartlessness; each small victory is retracted. Tommy is transferred without warning, each time to a prison farther away and lacking the facilities for family reunions. Patty rises in the middle of the night to take a bus for the 10-hour journey to his final prison home, near the Canadian border. Casey grows into a vaguely troubled but academically brilliant adolescent. Eventually Patty rises to a professional-level job at a nursing home. Whole decades pass under the wheels of Tommy's sentence.

What emerges, finally, is a portrait of a marriage that is actually far stronger than many unions conducted entirely outside the walls. O'Nan has bet big here: The novel's immovable object, the penal system, deprives him of the plot engines that usually drive such a book. And yet ''The Good Wife" is, truly, a page-turner. In large part this flows from the book's documentary-like realism and O'Nan's cool, muscular prose. Every detail of Patty's story seems to hum with the energy of lived life, from the vending-machine meals of the prison visiting area to the single tennis ball that Patty finds in the small box of possessions Tommy carries with him, at long last, on his way out of jail. (I thought about the tennis ball a long time, absorbing how many hours of idleness it contained.)

But the novel's greatest achievement is Patty herself, a character rendered with such richness and honesty that she will linger in the reader's mind long after the final page is read. I can honestly say I wish I knew her. I wish all of us could be as good.

Justin Cronin's novel, ''The Summer Guest," was recently released in paperback.

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