There was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite.He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none. Year after year this man went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the LORD Almighty at Shiloh, where Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of the LORD. Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the LORD had closed her womb. Because the LORD had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the LORD, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah would say to her, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” NIV
His Other Wife is the story of a divorced woman, Hilary, and her son, Seth, and Seth’s “other family”, his father, the woman his father is now married to, and their children. The horrible effects of divorce and desertion are not soft-pedaled, but the story manages to jump from one character’s viewpoint to another and make the reader understand to some extent why everyone did what they did. Eric, the dad in the story, is a selfish adulterer, but he’s also a father who loves his son and wants to connect with him. The other wife, Pam, is competitive with an uncontrolled tongue, but she’s also fragile and insecure and trying to make a family with her husband, Eric. Hilary is lonely and way too dependent on her son for her own emotional stability, but she’s a good mom and a persistently loving one. Seth has his own issues, but he’s too busy keeping mom afloat and trying to make her happy to deal with his own emotional needs.
Then, tragedy breaks the entire family dynamic wide open. The story is loosely based on the family dynamic in Hannah’s story in I Samuel. But whereas Hannah and Peninah were rivals in having children, Hilary and Pam are competing for the love and attention of their children, especially Seth. The characters and their interactions are well-written and engaging in this book, and the calamity that brings out all the hidden dysfunction in the family makes the story move along and continue to grab the reader’s attention all the way to the end.
This novel is published by FaithWords, and there is some Christian content and teaching embedded in the story. Hilary’s faith both sustains and challenges her, even though she doesn’t think of herself as much of a Christian, just a semi-regular church-goer who prays emergency “help!” prayers when things go wrong. But in the book, God honors even those simple prayers and brings stability and peace into Hilary’s life when she is desperate enough to look to Him. It wasn’t over-poweringly preachy to me, but others may disagree with that assessment. His Other Wife was a good, thoughtful read which put great characters into an arresting situation that brought out the best and worst in each of them. Good dialog and good psychological insights complete this solid story of two families who must come together for the sake of a son who is suffering a life-changing trial.