Title: Noah’s Wife
Written by: Lindsay Starck
Published: by Putnam; on sale January 26, 2016
Read Samples: You can read the prologue and chapters 1 and 2 on Lindsay’s website!
Lindsay Starck’s debut novel is a loose retelling of the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark. The main points carried over into Noah’s Wife are that there is a man named Noah whose purpose is to save, and there are animals, so if you aren’t terribly familiar with the Biblical story, you still know enough!
The story begins with just how rainy it is in one small town. In fact, it has been raining for years. Although a number of townspeople have left, there are many resolute individuals who won’t abandon their homes and memories. The town used to be quite prosperous due to their zoo, but no one goes to the zoo in the rain.
Lindsay Starck’s writing style is beautiful, a fact on which all reviewers comment. Here is a sample from the beginning describing the people in the town where it never stops raining:
“They are not always happy, or at peace. They miss their shadows. Sometimes when they step outside in the morning the first drop of rain on their plastic ponchos echoes in their ears with the resounding toll of a funeral bell. Sometimes when they return home in the faint gray light of evening, they cannot bear the hoarse whispers of their rusted wind chimes and they cannot bear the sight of the water steadily rising in their rain gauges. They despair; and they are sick of despair. With swift and sudden anger they take up the shining cylinders and they hurl the water into the grass and they fling the gauges with great force toward the concrete, standing and watching while the glass shatters and breaks. At the moment of impact they feel something crack within their very souls and then they go inside — repentant — to find a broom and sweep up a pile of pieces that are jagged and clear.”
After meeting the perpetually wet town, we are then introduced to Noah and told how he meets his wife. They are on a whale watching trip, and when the waves get rough and she gets scared, he reassures her that everything will work out. This deep faith that Noah has it what his wife loves about him.
The rainy town despairs greatly, and everyone stops going to church. When the old minister in the rainy town walks into the river one day and doesn’t come out (was it an accident or not?), the run-down church has a vacancy. Noah volunteers to take on the challenge of saving this water-logged town. The challenge tests Noah greatly, and his marriage strains under the weight of it. It’s hard to believe Noah could ever falter, as he is depicted as handsome, confident, and a natural leader, a man to whom his previous congregation flocked in droves.
In Noah’s Wife, readers are introduced to a slew of characters. Many of them are referred to by their relationships to others, such as “Mrs. McGinn’s daughter” or “Dr. Yu’s father” or, of course, “Noah’s Wife.” While all of the characters’ names are eventually revealed, Noah’s wife’s name remains a mystery the entirety of the novel.
And that is a purposeful choice.
Noah’s wife is interesting. Though she had never been to church in her life, she marries a minister. She is the perfect helpmate, always the assistant and never the leader: “Where else would she be, if not here [with Noah]? What would she be doing, if she were not helping him?” Small challenges appear to overwhelm her because her path is that of Noah’s, so she’s not used to making decisions. She has faith in her husband, her husband has faith in God, and that is all fine and dandy. But when the zoo in the town floods and everyone must help rescue and rehome the animals, Noah’s wife struggles under the expectations put on her:
“Animals are much easier [than people], reflects Noah’s wife. Their wants and their needs are obvious, open, straightforward: they are hungry, tired, satisfied, afraid. The townspeople, on the other hand, with their emotions in knots and their hopes and dreams and fears all tangled up in themselves and their neighbors — well, what would make her think she could handle all of that? That is Noah’s job; not hers.”
Of course, given that Noah’s wife earns the title of the book, we can expect the story to challenge her to her breaking point and that she will have to make some tough choices that are not typical for her, so there is a lot of build up in the book with a highly satisfying — and surprising — pay off.
The foil to Noah’s wife is Mrs. McGinn. She basically runs the town. She barks and people stand at attention. I loved that Mrs. McGinn was this terribly unlikable person who wanted things accomplished and questions answered. She’s aggressive and bossy when no one else has direction (or a clue).
One image that really stuck with me showed Mrs. McGinn’s fearlessness. After the zoo has been flooded and animals have been rescued, there is still some damage. She pokes a boa constrictor in the gutter. And then, “Mrs. McGinn steps away from the snake. ‘That one is definitely dead,’ she declares.” There is no fear of this terrifying animal. In fact, when a new person comes to town, “Mrs. McGinn wields her umbrella like a weapon.” I love the fencing imagery that Starck expertly weaves in, giving the story a bit of a fable feel.
In the end, though, we learn that Mrs. McGinn has been married four times because three husbands cheated on her (the current husband has a temper, but has not strayed). She may be the strongest character in the book, but she is still a breakable human and must be carried (sometimes literally), too.
Leesl is a third interesting character because she serves as yet another foil to Mrs. McGinn and Noah’s wife. She is practically a “nobody,” like Noah’s wife without Noah, but that’s the way she prefers it. People are worried for her because she is so alone:
“‘I’m not alone!’ proclaims Leesl, coming to her own defense when she hears them. ‘Look! Do you want to see a picture of my cats?’ The townspeople do not want to see a picture of Leesl’s cats. They have seen all the pictures before. Only Mrs. McGinn glances dutifully at the photo as she sighs. In truth, the main reason why she is so concerned about Leesl is because she believes that a place is as stable as its most unstable citizen…”
Leesl is many things: she is “never surprised” and “not expressive.” She serves as a bit of light in the story, though. When Noah’s first sermon in the new church doesn’t go as planned, and congregants break out into arguments about why the rain won’t stop, Leesl panics and begins playing the organ over them. This moment is almost circus-like, and I found it funny. But when a deeper sadness takes over the town, Leesl plays her organ in the empty church as loudly as she can because she doesn’t know what else to do, and here I was greatly saddened by the image.
There are many, many characters you will get to know in Noah’s Wife, and these are just three of my favorite. You learn each character so well that before you know it, you have the backstory and future dreams of many people, causing you to feel like you’re part of the town and these are your neighbors.
Getting to know a bunch of characters isn’t enough, though; there has to be a deeper message in a novel, especially one that is almost 400 pages. A few messages I got from Lindsay Starck’s book is that love is an abstract concept, and people’s definitions vary much more than I had personally thought. To Mrs. McGinn, love, like beauty, is not painless. For Dr. Yu, Noah’s wife’s best friend, love means that the ones we love never find mates that we feel are good enough for them. For Leesl, love means not being with the one she loves and instead yearning for them. For Mrs. McGinn’s daughter, who has witnessed her mother’s many divorces, love means monogamy, and she tells her fiance (the zookeeper) to list off the animals that mate for life in what almost sounds like verbal foreplay.
In a novel about people who won’t leave what is obviously a doomed town, there of course has to be a theme about hope. I was worried that the message would be we all just need a dose of hope and we’ll be good to go, which is a pill I can’t swallow. But that’s just not the case. There are times characters have hope that leads to nothing, and times when hope is just the right thing. It can’t be a safety blanket to make things perfect; hope must be used wisely.
Sometimes hope, and seeking reasons to have hope, is not good. I felt it deeply when I read, “What [Maruo’s] friends and neighbors do not understand as well as he does…is that there are no signs except the ones we choose to read.” While Mauro’s sentiment could be read in a positive light, another character is straight depressing: “Sometimes there isn’t any way to make the best of things. . . . And I think that to insist that there is — that everything happens for a reason, et cetera — well, oftentimes that’s nothing but a good looking lie.” A third sentiment is that we don’t deserve our misery . . . or our happiness. These things come to us, and we navigate our lives as they are dealt. Noah’s Wife gave me a lot to think about instead of forcing a message upon me, which I appreciated and felt showed the author’s faith in her audience.
In the end, the message appears to be one about choice: do we follow or lead, be happy or gloomy, realistic or faithful? Do others define us through our relationships to them, or do we define ourselves?
Don’t forget that Lindsay and I did an interview late 2015! You can read more about Lindsay’s inspirations and how she completed this novel.
Disclaimer: Lindsay Starck and I attended the MFA program at the University of Notre Dame together from 2008-2010 where original character sketches for this novel were created and workshopped. I want very much for Lindsay’s novel to do well, and thus, for these reasons, I am a biased reviewer.