Marcie Maxfield’s debut novel Em’s Awful Good Fortune is a hoot. The first sentence, “Sometimes I wish he would hit me,” quickly grabs my attention. Narrator Em’s wit describes the life of a devoted wife and mother as she gives up her own dreams and career to advance her husband’s. She moves with her family as her husband’s work takes them from S. Korea to China to France to Japan and back again to China. She has a great husband from the outside looking in: he’s personable, handsome, makes a good living, takes his family with him for years at a time to adventures in several different countries.
The cultural innuendos of life in different countries are tangible. There are many laugh-out-loud stories scattered throughout the novel. Their two children, Rio and Ruby, grow up in international day schools and find coming back to the U.S. similar to a foreign experience. As their father’s work ends after four years in Paris, they sit around the table discussing where they would like to go next. Rio wants to say in Paris; he doesn’t like change. Ruby wants to go to Ohio, though she’s never been there. She wants a house with a white picket fence and a yard for her dog to play in. Ironically, she describes Em’s childhood. “We give her the world and, but all she wants is a normal American life.” Repatriation is hard. The children are not quite California kids upon their return. They are TCK, (third-culture kids)—not totally French or American, though most comfortable in a room full of global nomads.
A turning point in Em’s marriage occurs when she accompanies her husband to Shanghai after their children are both away at college in the U.S. He continues to work long hours and she turns to writing during his long absences. From one country to another, the differences of pollution tolerances are drastic. As a tagalong wife, Em tries to adapt, but loses her health during a long episode of high pollution hanging over the city. The reader is introduced to the Chinese Air Quality Index, from 50—Good—all the way up to 500—Hazardous and emergency conditions, meaning the entire population is more likely to be affected by serious health effects. Em repatriates early in an attempt to save her health and her marriage.
The light-hearted banter of the novel is a fragile cover up for the universal situation of women who abandon their own health and happiness for the love of family and marriage. This is a story that stays with the reader long after reading the last page. I recommend it to anyone in a marriage or contemplating entering one.