Why Do Titles Feature Someone’s Wife?

I just read a novel called The Wife by Alafair Burke and when recording its completion on Goodreads, I was startled to discover how many books have ‘WIFE’ in the title. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? The question is germane, since my work in progress is tentatively called The Admiral’s Wife.

I was actually quite pleased when I came up with this title. It has a ring to it, I thought. Evocative of a certain sort of woman, possibly conjuring in the mind of readers a bit of scandal as well as something historical. But perhaps the word ‘wife’ also connotes possession, anonymity, and a person of lesser consequence than her husband. As if a woman is only of significance in relation to the man who has married her.

This was true, of course, in days gone by when women were considered chattels or property, creatures to be traded away for some sort of gain regardless of class. Let’s have a look at a few of them:

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain – a story about Hadley Richardson who marries Ernest Hemingway. There was no doubt about who had the upper hand in that relationship. (Read this one.)

The Silent Wife by A.S.A Harrison – A chilling psychological thriller about a marriage, a way of life, and how far one woman will go to keep what is rightfully hers. This one sounds as if the wife is in charge.

The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman – set in WWII Poland, the wife in this story helps her husband keep Jews alive by hiding them in various cages of the zoo and keeps alive an atmosphere of play and innocence even as Europe crumbled around her.

The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin – the story of Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her marriage to famed aviator Charles Lindbergh. Anne was initially defined by her husband but ultimately developed her own strength and fame. (READ)

The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve – a woman receives word that a plane flown by her husband has exploded and afterwards confronts the secret life he led as she sets out to learn who her husband really was. (READ)

The Nineteenth Wife by David Ebershoff – the title is a clear indication of how wives are treated in this story about Brigham Young, prophet and leader of the Mormon Church.

There’s The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman (READ), The Secret Wife by Gill Paul, The Soldier’s Wife by Margaret Leroy, The Starter Wife by Gigi Levangie Grazer, The Silent Wife, The Pocket Wife, The Crane Wife, The Doctor’s Wife, The Senator’s Wife, The Headmaster’s Wife … phew, the list on Goodreads continues for several pages.

Hmmm – just wondering whether I’ve inadvertently stumbled on a cliche for my title. What does this kind of title suggest to you?

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.



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15 Responses

  1. I’ve long avoided books with titles that have ‘the so and so’s daughter or wife.’ I do feel that it puts the woman in the implied role of adjunct, even if it is about her. If she’s interesting enough to write about, maybe something stronger?

  2. Interesting question/observation, Mary. I agree with the idea that the title connotes someone of lesser significance to her husband. Which is not to say you shouldn’t use it. Because using the word in the title also tells me as a reader we’re going to find out something remarkably different than that.

    With that last point in mind, I add to your list, “The Wife” by Meg Wolitzer. This short, powerful book holds a top-ten spot on my best books read list. (If I had such a list, which I may now need to compile!)

  3. Mary: What can be both exciting and frustrating is how the Amazon machine can now leverage specific words and bring you new readers (although readers who may not necessarily be reading in your particular genre).

    Perhaps I’m a bit myopic in looking at it only from a marketing or “discoverability” perspective, but that “biggest bookstore in the world” is being analyzed daily by experts who regularly address these issues, and they say that how the subtle, nuanced meanings of a word are interpreted by readers may not matter as much anymore as how often such words are being used in other books published in your genre.

    You also have the advantage of being an established author, so it may be that you’re not as vulnerable to being misinterpreted as would be a newbie author such as I, whose fortunes in Amazon can be dramatically swayed by Also Boughts, that listing of other books the website suggests to your readers, be they similar or dramatically different from your own.

    Also, coming out of a career as a copywriter, it’s become my opinion that people don’t read too much into a word until they see the context it’s in. Advertising and marketing headlines have taught us not to take things so literally.

    So my guess is that most of the potential readers of your new book will be those connecting with it on Amazon, and they have both your existing books and all the online clues that will help prevent them from miscategorizing the title.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Jim. And for adding the marketing angle on this topic. I have to admit marketing is one of the reasons I chose The Admiral’s Wife … we shall see if the title holds!

  4. Hi Mary, I struggled with the same question, but in my opinion, the message is she might seem to be “just” a wife, but really look (read her story) and you will see that there there is no “just” about her. I am reminded of an old New Yorker cartoon with two men at a cocktail party where one man informs the other, “Women aren’t ‘mere’ any more.”

    That said, I might be prejudiced, as my book is Noah’s Wife. 🙂 T.K.

    T.K. Thorne http://www.TKThorne.com

    Blogging about Whales to Whirling Dervishes Sign up for my Newsletter


    1. I like the notion of there being no ‘just’ about her. Indeed, as the story unfolds the reader will find out how much more. I hope you’re having success with Noah’s Wife!

  5. I’m glad you cast a light on this title trend, Mary. I’ve always thought it was both demeaning (“wife” as the accessory to someone interesting) and off-putting to male readers. “Daughter of” has the same drawbacks. Both monikers contribute to so much historical fiction being tagged as “women’s fiction.”

  6. I, too, have noticed “wife” in many book titles lately, and it seemed to me that a marketing department may helped choose a lot of those titles, in part, because of what Jim Starr said about discoverability. I realized that’s not the case with you and you should feel free to choose a title you desire and is meaningful to you and the story. I’ve also noticed a trend with “daughter” and “girl” in the book title. “Sister” is prevalent, too, though doesn’t seem to have quite the same connotation as “belonging to” or “diminished role” as in girl. Perhaps our collective creative caps need a shake up. Perhaps these words in titles are a phase and will peter out over time. Perhaps readers’ pocketbooks will do the walking. Perhaps we can take the attitude that those words are what the author deemed best for their story. Ultimately, you will decide if The Admiral’s Wife is what you want to use, and together with font style/size/color as well as cover design, convey all you want to best appeal to your readers.

  7. I’ve been wondering the same thing lately, not just with wife titles but also daughter. It’s almost become title cliche lately to have somebody’s wife or daughter. It’s almost always historical novels, so perhaps it is because wives and daughters had much less independent agency in history. I did recently read The Brewer’s Tale and while it did provide much information about brewing ale and beer, much of the plot was dedicated to how unusual and difficult it was for a woman to have her own business.

  8. And for what it’s worth–realizing I’m not exactly the typical American male–I’m old enough to be part of a generation that really is populated with some outdated attitudes towards women, yet I can honestly say that titles with those words have never suggested anything to me other than the gender of the supposed protagonist and a key character to whom she might be related in the story, but with no socio-political spin whatsoever. I would suggest that any potential reader who might conclude otherwise may not be a desirable reader to begin with. Either way, among the larger universe of people who read novels, I’d propose those would be in the minority.

  9. Mary,
    Your original reason for choosing your title, “…Evocative of a certain sort of woman, possibly conjuring in the mind of readers a bit of scandal as well as something historical…” is sound.
    I agree with Jim and Tessa—don’t change your title “only to be politically correct.”
    Yes, title matters.
    You are also an established author.
    After all, it is a historical fiction tale. Appropriate for then.
    Perhaps it’s time to get contemporary titles such as The Ballerina’s husband, or The Policewoman’s husband?

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