In 1992, Olivia Goldsmith published The First Wives Club
to nothing short of phenomenal success. It stubbornly sat
on the New York Times bestseller list; indeed, so certain
the idea would hit, "Paramount chairman Sherry Lansing
bought the rights to the . . . novel when it was just an idea
and Lansing was still a producer." Lansing even battled
out competing producers Dawn Steel and Paula Weinberg by throwing
in an extra fifty thousand dollars. It was like an epiphany,"
Goldsmith exclaimed, "these three powerful women producers--women!--fighting
over my book that wasn't even a book!"
In 1996, Paramount turned that idea into a major motion
picture starring Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, and Bette Midler.
The novel involves three women, Elise, Annie, and Brenda,
whose successful husbands leave them for younger, blonder,
slimmer wives. Throughout the course of the narrative, the
first wives seek "justice," the narrative voice
always insists . . . not "revenge," for their faithless
husbands. "My books have been described as revenge novels,"
Goldsmith said in an interview, "but I think what is
really at their center is compassion." In what Goldsmith
herself has called the Olivian universe, "the meek occasionally
[inherit] a fair share of the earth and the race frequently
[goes] to the swift."
These three women work together in a powerful sisterhood;
they take action; they love, support, and nurture one another;
they find identities outside of the societal norm. To understand
how revolutionary this kind of plot is we need to examine
a similar pulp fiction novelist from the older, pre-1980 female
literary tradition: Jacqueline Susann.
Excepting the first, Jacqueline Susann's novels always ended
up at the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
Valley of the Dolls (1966) is, to this day, the best selling
novel of all time. Susann's work was extraordinarily popular
and followed in line with the female literary tradition of
its more literary counterparts. At the end of her novels featuring
female protagonists, the women are always bereft and lonely,
often even suicidal. In Valley of the Dolls, as we
remember, Neely swallows half a bottle of dolls, a slang term
for pills, in a suicide attempt over Lyon Burke's neglect.
Burke is going to build up a new star, Margie Parker, he is
letting Neely go from their agency, and he refuses to leave
his wife, Annie, who also pops dolls in order to handle her
husband's infidelities. Little girls sleep and play with toy
dolls to create and enjoy feelings of nurturance, warmth,
family, and love; these two women take dolls trying to locate
those same feelings, feelings they lost fighting their way
to the top of the entertainment industry in New York City.
In Once Is Not Enough (1973), January starts to throw
herself out the window in a sleep-walking, drug-induced dream
state until her maid, Sadie, pulls her back into the room.
After an earlier orgy leaves January with feelings of "loathing
and disgust," she searches for her friend Hugh to find
support, but no one answers the bell at his house, a bell
that has "a hollow sound . . . an empty sound."
She walks out on the dunes, a scene that reminds us of Edna
at the end of The Awakening, underneath stars that
look "hard and cold," and she collapses on the sand
in a depressed, hallucinatory acid haze unable to attain the
love from her parents she so desires.
At the end of Dolores (1976), the protagonist agrees
to the arranged marriage with billionaire Erick, but dreads
the intimate contact his position as husband will surely allow
him, but as she lays waiting for him in her satin nightgown
on her wedding night, he comes in and changes into a gray
suit. "Where are you going?" she asks. "To
my mistress," he answers. "It was as cut and dried
as that," Susann writes. "She held out her hand
and stared at the ring. It glowed like fire in the semidarkness.
She rubbed it against her satin nightgown . . . and stared
at it as the tears ran down her cheeks." Fire, consuming
and destructive, is all the expensive and enormous diamond
can bring her, no emotional warmth, no tender feeling. At
story's end, Dolores amasses colossal wealth and social position,
but unfortunately also colossal, tearful loneliness.
The devastatingly empty lives of Neely, Annie, January, and
Dolores are mirrored in the devastatingly empty lives of Cynthia,
Elise, Annie, and Brenda in The First Wives Club. Whereas
Susann's novels end with the women's lives in total devastation,
however, Goldsmith's novel begins there but quickly works
to create fulfilling lives for the protagonists.
In the beginning, Cynthia, depressed over her husband Gil's
affair with his business associate Mary Birmingham, over his
decision to unplug their ailing daughter's respirator, over
his decision that she should abort her second child, over
his obsession with his Jaguar, over his beatings, over his
destruction of her family's business, slits her wrists and
drains herself of life-sustaining blood. Elise's husband Bill
has abandoned her for the young, cocaine-addicted artist Phoebe,
and Elise herself struggles with alcoholism. Annie's husband
Aaron has left her for their sex therapist Leslie and has
invested (and lost) their daughter Sylvie's trust fund, the
trust fund that insures Sylvie, a victim of Down syndrome,
is well cared for at Sylvan Glades. Brenda's husband has left
her for the southern socialite Shelby and has cheated her
out of an equitable settlement while Brenda struggles with
her own weight problem. Their lives, in the classic melodramatic,
sensationalist, gratuitous style of the pulp fiction novelist,
are in total chaos. They are unhappy, lonely, angry, drunk,
fat, poor, or depressed, but, as they come together to attend
Cynthia's funeral, they learn to love, cherish, and help one
another, ultimately transforming their pathetic lives into
Like the women of the Joy Luck Club, these three women form
a club, the First Wives Club, to cheer one another and to
get justice. Rather than accept their wronged situations,
these women seize agency, resist oppression, and re-make themselves.
For example, Elise finds out her husband has left her when
she comes home and sees empty closets. Infuriated by this
utter lack of respect, she sells his collections to Brenda
for one dollar who in turn sells them for market price and
makes a hefty profit. Bill, who was unfaithful throughout
their marriage, will leave it without any of Elise's considerable
wealth. In addition, realizing she is drinking too much, Elise
makes an agreement with Brenda that she will not take a drink
as long as the overweight Brenda refuses junk food.
Annie's husband Aaron runs Paradise/Loest advertising agency
and tries to drive out his beloved partner Jerry. The First
Wives Club, disturbed by Aaron's lack of respect for Jerry,
his new marriage to his sex therapist Leslie, and his loss
of Sylvie's trust fund, conspires to kick Aaron, not Jerry,
out of the firm. Brenda's profits from the sale of Bill's
collections fund the coup, and Elise's high society connections
get Jerry the advertising accounts he needs to garner support
from the other employees at the agency. At the very company
meeting Aaron arranged to oust Jerry, Jerry and Brenda oust
Aaron. Annie begins dating an Hispanic man, Miguel De Los
Santos, which the psyche of the novel insists is a very revolutionary
move in society New York, writes the first draft of a novel
called The First Wives Club, and turns down Aaron when
he, tired of the cold Leslie, comes back to her and proposes
Brenda's husband, Morty the Madman of the appliance commercials,
hides his wealth and takes advantage of Brenda's fear of the
courts, a fear based on her family's Italian mafia connections,
to get Brenda to sign an out-of-court settlement. She and
the children can barely exist on the agreement; their misery
is compounded by the fact that the checks are always late
anyway. Brenda, who has access to Morty's old IRS tax returns,
hands them over to the police and that information, along
with the illegal foreign accounts Morty has set up and an
insider trading incident, are enough to land him in a cold,
dark prison cell. Brenda, meanwhile, has her friendships with
Elise and Annie, her new lesbian love affair with her lawyer
Diane, her exercise program, and her diet. She has found her
true self, one that happens not to be heterosexual, and she
is working to improve it.
Even though Cynthia is dead, the First Wives Club still takes
on her ex-husband Gil Griffin, a corporate tycoon. Poised
to take over Maibeibi, a Japanese corporation, Gil sinks the
vast majority of his company's funds into buying Maibeibi
stock. When the first wives find out Gil's takeover secret,
they get to Mr. Tanaki, the CEO of Maibeibi, first and help
him secure his company against Gil's takeover plans. As a
result, Maibeibi's stock drops. Thus Gil loses a fortune and
his chance to make corporate takeover history. Also, reports
of insider trading lead Gil, and many of the other men, into
the hands of the authorities. The First Wives Club has achieved
its final victory.
While one reading of the novel might cast the three first
wives as evil Furies, with snakes for hair and blood dripping
from their eyes, another reading, and the one to which I subscribe,
casts the threesome as paladins who refuse to be thrown in
the societal discard pile.
As Elise explains to Annie and Brenda when she first proposes
the club, "We have to show society that we can't simply
be discarded. We have to do something. We have the resources,
the brains, the connections and the imagination." Annie
agrees, exploding, "We're leaking. They've punctured
us, and we're dwindling down to nothing. Society says that's
just fine and we aren't even standing up for ourselves."
Once the women decide to act, they exude power and energy.
Brenda asks Elise, "Did anyone ever tell you you're beautiful
when you're angry?" Elise replies, "No. Mostly they
liked me passive. But those days are over, my friend. I'm
Active, not passive, these women no longer need to be saved
from dire situations; they can save themselves. Annie tells
Aaron just that when he comes to ask her to remarry him. After
she refuses his offer, Aaron sneers, "So, you expect
your knight in shining armor to save you?" Annie, confident
and whole, replies, "I don't need to be saved. Or rather,
I did, but I saved myself." Later, when Annie walks through
the New York City zoo, she realizes that she was once caged
just like the animals. "I am luckier than the ducks,"
she thinks, "I can walk away." Then, with great
élan vital, she strides toward the exit.
The film adaptation of the novel was extremely successful
grossing almost nineteen million dollars on its opening weekend,
which "was the largest opening ever for a movie released
between summer and the year-end holidays" and the "highest
opening for a so-called women's film." This version of
the story took the plotline in a slightly different direction,
very similar to that of Nine to Five. After the women
merely threaten the three men with utter destruction, they
force their husbands to finance a community crisis center
for women. The final scene of the film presents the grand
opening, replete with famous guests like first wife Ivana
Trump and feminist Gloria Steinem. After the evening's success,
the three, alone in the crisis center, stand side by side
in solidarity singing "You Don't Own Me," and, like
Castillo's Carmen and Tan's Olivia, dancing across the floor.
Although the community crisis center for women is certainly
a noble idea, women can come to it for solidarity, support,
help, nurturance, this new plotline neutralizes the aggressive,
assertive force of the women on the men's lives and "takes
the razor sharp edge off Goldsmith's wicked humor." The
women threaten their husbands, but never do destroy them;
in other words, the film contains furies that are a little
less furious. This mollifying distortion of Goldsmith's literary
effort probably results from the fact that the screenplay
was written by a man, Robert Harling, and directed by a man,
Hugh Wilson. Nevertheless, this filmic version still captures
the electricity of idealism. The women come together, act,
make changes, improve their own lives and the lives of others
in the community.
In Goldsmith's novel, Annie becomes more assertive, starts
to write, breaks with racist, segregational tradition by dating
a non-Caucasian, and learns to save herself instead of waiting
for a knight in shining armor to save her; Elise defies societal
convention by dating a man far younger than she, returns to
acting, begins producing, and stops drinking; Brenda accepts
her lesbianism, begins running a company, and works on her
weight. Although the plot does contain one major weakness,
it sets young, attractive women against middle-aged women,
reaffirming one aspect of the "woman-as-enemy" motif,
it significantly upsets the plot trajectory of earlier pulp
fiction by bringing women together to help one another and
by ending with hope for the future.
The organization Women Work! gave Goldsmith the Women of
Vision Award for this novel. Geraldine Ferraro, the guest
speaker who presented the award, said:
The First Wives Club was truly a break-through for our
society. For the first time in recent memory, it made the
public think about the issues that matter deeply to us--how
our society views mid-life women. Whether divorce settlements
are fair. Whether employers recognize what mid-life and
older women can offer . . . Sadly they are issues that few
policy makers address or even consider.
Beyond showing the vastly improved lives of her protagonists,
Goldsmith also addresses some deep cultural issues that affect
women and, in Ferraro's view, ought to affect government policy.
Melinda Bargreen has even argued that the author is much more
than a mere pulp fiction writer, "[I]t is perhaps logical
to think that anyone who has taken the emotional temperature
of what might be called women's issues as accurately as Goldsmith
has in her novels deserves to be a bona fide social commentator."
She further asserts, "Goldsmith's novels are glamorous
and glitzy, but they also are trenchant social commentary."
As one author commented about The First Wives Club,
"It's not about going off a cliff like Thelma and Louise
did. It's get down to earth, raise your children, get a bank
account, buy your own boat."