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Dr. Irene S. Levine

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The Professors' Wives' Club: An interview with Joanne Rendell

Posted: 10/22/08 02:12 PM ET

One of the things that turns acquaintances into close friends is the sharing of a common bond between them. The Professors' Wives' Club revolves around four women, so different from one another that they might even appear unlikely as friends. But they share the unique connection of living in faculty housing (three of them faculty wives) at the fictional Manhattan U, a thinly disguised version of New York University.

In this breakout first novel, Joanne Rendell creates powerful characters struggling to define their roles as women and an engaging plot that keeps you glued until the end. The alternating chapters introduce the reader to Mary, Ashleigh, Sofia and Hannah whose individual stories touch upon a wide range of women's issues, such as infidelity, domestic abuse, intergenerational friendship, homosexuality, and work-life balance.

The commonality that brings these four women together is that the beautiful little garden adjacent to their University Housing, which has become their sanctuary and meeting place, The space is threatened with demolition (slated to become a parking lot) by a greedy, self-promoting Dean, a husband to one of the women.

In devising a plan to save the garden (in keeping with NYU's reputation as a hotbed of protests), they accomplish far more than they ever hoped: They develop a sisterhood that enables each woman to bravely pursue her dreams and live her life more fully. They evolve into far more than appendages to their accomplished husbands.

In the genre of The Wednesday Sisters and The Friday Night Knitting Club, the book portrays a circle of friendship that women crave and need, no matter what their role or station in life.

Joanne discussed her book's relevance to female friendships:

Has it been easy or difficult to find an affinity group among faculty wives? Do you think that it is geographical proximity, similar roles, both, or is it something else that bonds you together? Does level of education play a role in helping you develop satisfying relationships with one another?

Professors' wives -- and of course there are professors' husbands and partners too -- are in an interesting position. Even if they are not professors themselves (which many are), they are often deeply embedded in the university world. They live in faculty housing, they work out at the campus gym, and/or their kids go to the same university childcare. Geography and a shared involvement in campus life, therefore, means faculty wives interact more often than, say, doctor's wives or engineer's wives.

As a professor's wife myself, I've met some wonderful faculty wives, who are now my good friends, while at playground owned by New York University where my husband is a professor. Also, my husband and I are faculty-in-residence at one of the university dorms and I have met other fabulous wives through this program.

In my experience, professors' wives are an incredibly smart, strong, and spirited group of women. At the same time, we all come from very different backgrounds and have different levels of education. But I think the shared bond of the university is a strong one and provides a great backdrop in which women can find one another and foster friendships.


The relationships you describe seem to be driven more by sharing a common purpose there than by a sense of intimacy between the women. Is that an accurate assessment/portrayal?

It's true. The women in my book are brought together initially by the desire to take on the mean dean and save the faculty garden, rather than a sense of intimacy. Yet a real intimacy begins to grow between them as their campaign progresses. They share secrets, they support one another, and find that in spite of their differences they have many commonalities too. The novel takes place over just a couple of months and these are the first months of the women's fledgling friendship. I'm sure these women, with time, would grow deeper and more intimate bonds that would go way beyond the purpose that first brought them together.

You also stayed clear of discussing any of the jealousies that might occur among a group of female friends (e.g. two becoming more friendly than the rest). Was this purposeful?

Relationships between women frequently get a bad rap, in my opinion. Women are too often portrayed in film, TV, and books as bitchy, competitive, and at odds with one another. We constantly see the bitchy woman boss mistreating the young female employee; or the woman who treats her nanny like a slave; or the sisters who hate one another; or the mother and daughter who constantly fight; or the "friends" who bitch behind each other's back or betray each other over a guy.

Granted, in real life, women can be like this -- but not all the time. Women, in my experience, also have wonderful, supportive, and nurturing relationships with other women.

Does playing a supporting role to an academic husband enhance the need for female friendships?

Most professors' wives' I know would not see themselves playing a "supporting role." On the whole, they are independent women who have interesting and successful careers of their own. However, in many cases, the professor husband is the main breadwinner and thus his family has to follow where his job and career take him. This means many faculty wives move to university towns where they know few people and where they might have to start new jobs. Friendships with other wives or other women on campus are therefore very important -- and sustaining.

Why were you drawn to write about the power of female friendships?

Throughout my life, I've always been lucky enough to be surrounded by wonderful female friends. When I was in grad school doing a PhD in Literature, I had some particularly incredible girlfriends. We shared a house, we supported each other, read one another's papers, and of course had a lot of fun together. It was a beautiful time! Even though I'm now married with a child, I still thrive on my female friendships. I'm currently part of a group of mums who are all, like me, homeschooling our preschool/kindergarten age kids. The women in this group are amazing -- artists, activists, doulas, writers -- and so supportive. I couldn't imagine trying to be a mum without them!

From the moment I started writing fiction, I knew I wanted to write something that celebrated these intensely loyal and positive female friendships.

About the novelist: Joanne Rendell was born and raised in the UK. After completing a PhD in English Literature, she moved to the States to be with her husband, a professor at NYU. She now lives in a student dorm in New York City with her family. Her second novel, Crossing Washington Square, will be released next summer ('09) by NAL/Penguin.

Irene S. Levine, PhD is a freelance journalist and author. She holds an appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and is working on a book about female friendships which will be published by Overlook Press in 2009.

Friendship by the Book is an occasional series of posts on www.fracturedfriendships.com about books that offer friendship lessons. She is the co-author of Schizophrenia for Dummies (Wiley, 2008).

 
 
 

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