The dust jacket of Helen Benedict’s novel “The Sailor’s Wife” could well be mistaken for an official Greek tourism poster. Against a cloudless sky of dazzling blue rises a solitary Doric column, doing its worn best to look symbolic. In front of it stands an elegant blond girl with a long ponytail, full red lips slightly parted, gaze fixed on something or someone unseen, one exquisitely manicured and scarlet-nailed hand raised to shade her eyes against the sun. At least, one assumes she’s standing: The scene is chopped off abruptly just above her chin, so that there’s no actual evidence of either girl or column being on solid ground, or even of solid ground existing. If this kind of summer fantasy is what you’re looking for, don’t open the book. There may have been jackets that--except for being set in Greece--more totally misrepresented a text, but in more than half a century of reviewing, I don’t recall one.
Joyce Perlman is a nice, bored, yearning Miami teenager who has the great misfortune to encounter, in a supermarket, a young white-uniformed Greek sailor called Nikos. Nikos has black curly hair, amber eyes, an inflated male ego and staggering good looks. The contrast with Joyce’s dull, overweight, TV-fixated family is seductively heady. She speaks no Greek. He speaks only minimal English. They communicate nicely--to begin with--via their bodies, but in no other way. So they elope, get married and return to Nikos’ island (a not even perfunctorily disguised Lemnos, here renamed Ifestia), where reality, in the shape of village life and tough peasant in-laws, kicks in with a vengeance. The date is 1975. Had Benedict set it much later, social reforms (abolition of dowries, pensions for women), plus the impact of everything from TV and ATMs to labor-saving kitchen gadgets, would have somewhat blunted the force of her tough message.
This is the side of old-style Greek rural poverty that tourists never see, delineated with merciless accuracy yet also with a surprising degree of compassion. Having lived in a Greek village for several years during the ‘60s (on Lesbos, the big neighboring island that is featured in Benedict’s narrative), I can vouch for the fundamental truth of the picture she presents: the harsh, unending, physical labor, the intolerance and bigotry, the poisonous gossiping, the all-pervasive male chauvinism--and the flinty matriarchal viragoes that such a system inevitably creates. Poor Joyce does her best: better, in fact, than many would achieve in her place, not least since Nikos is away at sea for months at a time. She works till she drops for her demanding mother-in-law, Dimitra. Her fingernails become dirty and broken. She gives up jeans and short-sleeved shirts. She learns to speak Greek. She attends Orthodox church services, too scared to admit Christianity isn’t in fact her religion.
A lesser novelist than Benedict, and one lacking her anthropological background, might have left it at that, as an unrelieved horror story of the clash between two hopelessly incompatible cultures. But what we are also made to see is the way Joyce comes to embrace her life, how she very nearly manages to make a go of it, how Dimitra’s toughness hides inarticulate love, how Joyce and her father-in-law, Petros, work toward a real understanding. But the odds are hopelessly against her. Nikos, inevitably, becomes petulant and demanding. Joyce, equally inevitably, is secretly, and reluctantly, driven into the arms of Anglo-Greek Alex, a summer visitor from London. Dimitra’s harsh possessive love for her daughter-in-law is turned to screaming abusive rejection when she learns that Joyce is in fact Jewish. Ironically, though, it’s Dimitra’s love, and what that love drives her to do (a twist of the plot not to be revealed), that finally sends Joyce back to America.
This is a bitter, wise and powerful novel. Benedict’s anatomy of Greek village life and peasant psychology is penetrating and just. Only once or twice, to further her plot line, does she allow a manifest impossibility--as when, to find Joyce a refuge when her Jewishness gets her thrown out of the house, she provides Petros with a kindly widowed mistress, of some 30 years standing, in the same village. Dimitra, we gather, doesn’t know about her. Excuse me? In my village she’d have known in five minutes, never mind 30 years. The same applies to Joyce and Alex’s surprisingly indiscreet carry-on.
But it’s a small price to pay for so intensely realized a personal tragedy. Joyce ends up, with dreadful inevitability, alienated forever from both her families. On her last night in Athens she dreams of a Florida supermarket: Not one thing there for Dimitra, she reflects. But what is there for Joyce where she’s returning?