What We Do to Survive:
The Runaway Wife

Elizabeth Birkelund’s The Runaway Wife is an unusual little tome about the joys of individualism and independence as much as it is about the things we sometimes think we must sacrifice to maintain the status quo. The titular wife is not the main character, but it is her disappearance into the Swiss Alps that catalyzes the plot and moves the narrator onto his own voyage of self-discovery.

There are a lot of frightful and scandalous politicians in the news right now, and there is one in The Runaway Wife as well—in fact, he’s the reason for all this running away. We learn about him through the eyes of his wife, Calliope, and their three thematically named daughters—Clio, Thalia and Helene. These modern muses are a lovely bunch, but they’ve lived unusual and difficult lives as well as having grown up in privilege. Now they’re using what tools they have at hand, beauty and flirtation, to make an appeal for one last shot at a rescue attempt.

To combat her regular ennui, Calliope disappears into the mountains to rediscover her true self. Her dutiful daughter always find her in the same place, except this time. After two weeks of searching, they must return home. So what do they do? Enlist the assistance of a big, strong, and thoroughly inexperienced holiday hiker named Jim who, reeling from the simultaneous losses of love and livelihood, has made his own escape into the mountains.

the runaway wife

The whole scenario of sending a stranger after their mother, over one night’s conversation and with early snows threatening, feels quite contrived. All of the background information and Jim’s decision to undertake the endeavor happens within the first two short chapters, and with so much happening so quickly it didn’t reel in as much as test the limits of the suspension of disbelief. The search is the proverbial needle in a haystack, not to mention what should be an exercise in futility. However, much like Jim’s perception of the world and its workings, the whole thing takes a dramatic turn when we finally meet Calliope.

Warrior, Earth mother, eccentric, vivacious—all words to describe what Calliope is and what she seems to represent when we finally meet her. And, like Jim, the world of the book becomes much more fascinating and enchanting with her in it. There are certainly moments in which it might be easy to suspect things are about to descend into romance novel territory, but Birkelund keeps everything on the up and up, the conversations between the two almost-strangers are intimate and caring, but also accepting. They’re the kinds of conversations many people just don’t experience, with parties forced to look clearly at themselves but without judgment.

With oncoming storms on one hand and Calliope’s husband’s powerful wrath on the other, it’s a wonder Jim can get her to do anything. As they reveal more about their experiences and get to know one another, the tug-of-war-of-wills continues on. He is earnest and concerned for her safety, but there are all different kinds of danger and what he begins to realize is that sometimes the physical kind isn’t the worst.

All of this works to make it that much difficult to see what’s happening to Calliope, the tough choices she has to make, that Jim has to make, knowing the consequences but also knowing there’s no other way. What started as a slow trudge into the Alps turned into a story I would have liked to see go on. Birkelund’s characters are enjoyable, and the few we spend the most time with are worthy of note for their complexity. Knowing they have made unorthodox decisions and have highly uncertain futures ahead of them makes it all the more frustrating that they live in only 246 pages. For now we will just have to let them be in their world of imagination.

The Runaway Wife, by Elizabeth Birkelund, published by Harper, is out now.

About Marti Sichel (70 Articles)
Marti Davidson Sichel is happy to be a part of such an impressive lineup of talented contributors. She has always loved the capital-A Arts. Some of her fondest early memories include standing starry-eyed at stage doors to meet musical cast members who smiled and signed playbills, singing along to Broadway classics and dancing as only a six-year-old can to Cats. She was also a voracious and precocious reader. The bigger the words and more complex the ideas her books contained, the better — even (especially) if a teacher raised an eyebrow at the titles. Marti’s educational and professional experience tends toward the scientific, though science and art are often more connected than they seem. Being able to combine her love of culture and wordsmithing is a true pleasure, and she is grateful to Woman Around Town’s fearless leaders for the opportunity. A 2014 New York Press Club award winner, Marti finds the trek in from Connecticut and the excursions to distant corners of the theater world as exciting as ever. When she’s not working, you can often find Marti in search of great music, smart comedy and interesting recipes.