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'GOOD WIFE' HOLDS NO BARS

This book unfolds as the meditative answer to a single question -- a good one, though, and one that probably doesn't get asked enough.

What happens to the wife of a man who is sent to prison for 25 years, for murder?

The answer, in O'Nan's mind, is the life of Patty Dickerson.

Patty is 27 years old, pregnant, and pretty much content with her life when her husband Tommy and his hockey buddy Gary break into the home of an old woman in order to steal from her. They burn the house down, and the old woman dies. The two men are charged with murder.

Gary turns on his friend, convinces the court that Tommy did the deed, and beats his rap. Tommy takes the full punishment for his.

That's the first 110 pages. The rest of O'Nan's tale is what happens to Patty for the next 28 years, as she raises her son, Casey, makes a living on her own -- and waits for Tommy to return from prison.

"The Good Wife" begins with Patty lying in bed, waiting for her husband to come home on the night of the crime. The couple rent a house in upstate New York, outside Elmira. They aren't rich; Tommy works construction, and that just pays the bills. But Patty loves him and is eager to have their baby, even though her mother has never liked Tommy.

Tommy never comes home that night. The cops catch him and Gary fleeing the scene, and -- just like that -- Patty's life changes forever.

A life spent waiting for a man to be released from prison might at first look a lot like a giant parentheses -- a big space full of nothing. Certainly not all that much worth writing about.

But O'Nan uses his time frame of nearly three decades to show a gentle metamorphosis in Patty's character and her view of the world. She goes to work, taking Tommy's old construction job, then scrimps by on jobs at Montgomery Ward, in restaurants, as a nursing home aide. She collects welfare for a while. She worries about Casey, about whether she's being a good mother to him, and frets when she doesn't see a strong bond of love developing between Casey and Tommy. Her relationship with her mother heals and deepens. She gets promoted, ends up becoming a supervisor at the nursing home and making decent money.

O'Nan, of Connecticut, is a novelist whose previous works include "Snow Angels," "A Prayer for the Dying," and "The Night Country." The magazine Granta named him one of the 20 Best Young American Novelists.

Here, his touch is deft with his plotline, his characters subtle and lifelike, for the most part. He creates two worlds -- one inside the prison, one outside -- that really seem to exist.

Where "The Good Wife" fails is in making us care, from the very start, about the relationship between Patty and Tommy. We just don't see enough of Tommy throughout the first half of the novel to have any sympathy for him.

This choice by O'Nan likely came as an effort to keep the focus of the novel on the woman and child in this story -- on those left behind, as it were -- rather than on the guilty husband. But it feels from the very start as if something is missing, as if we're being asked to care more about the unit called "Patty and Tommy" than we should be expected to.

Ultimately, Tommy exists as a void in the life of Patty, the "good wife" of the title.

And in the end, Patty gets the happy ending she waits for, for so long. Tommy comes home.

Each reader will have to weigh the happiness of the ending on her own. In order to root for Tommy and for the survival of this marriage, this reader feels, we need to feel more than emptiness where he's concerned.

The Good Wife

By Stewart O'Nan

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

308 pages, $24

Charity Vogel is a News reporter and frequent book reviewer.

e-mail:cvogel@buffnews.com