Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

The Mere Wife

Rate this book
Two mothers—a suburban housewife and a battle-hardened veteran—struggle to protect those they love in this modern retelling of Beowulf.

From the perspective of those who live in Herot Hall, the suburb is a paradise. Picket fences divide buildings—high and gabled—and the community is entirely self-sustaining. Each house has its own fireplace, each fireplace is fitted with a container of lighter fluid, and outside—in lawns and on playgrounds—wildflowers seed themselves in neat rows. But for those who live surreptitiously along Herot Hall’s periphery, the subdivision is a fortress guarded by an intense network of gates, surveillance cameras, and motion-activated lights.

For Willa, the wife of Roger Herot (heir of Herot Hall), life moves at a charmingly slow pace. She flits between mommy groups, playdates, cocktail hour, and dinner parties, always with her son, Dylan, in tow. Meanwhile, in a cave in the mountains just beyond the limits of Herot Hall lives Gren, short for Grendel, as well as his mother, Dana, a former soldier who gave birth as if by chance. Dana didn’t want Gren, didn’t plan Gren, and doesn’t know how she got Gren, but when she returned from war, there he was. When Gren, unaware of the borders erected to keep him at bay, ventures into Herot Hall and runs off with Dylan, Dana’s and Willa’s worlds collide.

308 pages, Hardcover

First published July 17, 2018

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Maria Dahvana Headley

86 books1,542 followers
Maria Dahvana Headley is the New York Times-bestselling author of, most recently, THE MERE WIFE (out July 17, 2018 from MCD/FSG). Upcoming in 2019 is a new translation of BEOWULF, also from FSG. As well, she is the author of the young adult skyship novels MAGONIA and AERIE from HarperCollins, the dark fantasy/alt-history novel QUEEN OF KINGS, the internationally bestselling memoir THE YEAR OF YES, and THE END OF THE SENTENCE, a novella co-written with Kat Howard, from Subterranean. With Neil Gaiman, she is the New York Times-bestselling co-editor of the monster anthology UNNATURAL CREATURES, benefitting 826DC.

Her Nebula,Shirley Jackson and World Fantasy award-nominated short fiction has appeared on Tor.com, and in The Toast, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Apex, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, Subterranean Online, Glitter & Mayhem and Jurassic London's The Lowest Heaven and The Book of the Dead, Uncanny, Shimmer, and more. It's anthologized in Best American Fantasy and Science Fiction, as well as the 2013 and 2014 editions of Rich Horton's The Year's Best Fantasy & Science Fiction, & Paula Guran's 2013 The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, in The Year's Best Weird Volume 1, ed. Laird Barron, and in Wastelands, Vol 2, among others. She's also a playwright and essayist.

She grew up in rural Idaho on a sled-dog ranch, spent part of her 20's as a pirate negotiator and ship marketer in the maritime industry, and now lives in Brooklyn in an apartment shared with a seven-foot-long stuffed crocodile.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
1,583 (34%)
4 stars
1,601 (34%)
3 stars
964 (20%)
2 stars
363 (7%)
1 star
107 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 953 reviews
Profile Image for Alex.
1,418 reviews4,327 followers
September 26, 2018
I was promised Beowulf in the suburbs, and here's the problem: it isn't. Does Headley know that you can't just name a character Grendel and call it a day? If she'd billed it as loosely-related Beowulf slash fic, that'd be one thing - it would, seriously, it would be one thing - it would be this thing minus the pretentious parts. What Headley has done here is, she's gotten the plot wrong.

Look, no, what do you know about the plot of Beowulf? Dude fights Grendel and then he has to fight Grendel's mom, right? That's the deal. Later he fights a dragon but nobody cares. The Beowulf author does some fun stuff with, like, who's really the bad guy here, and Headley picked up on that, but she didn't pick up on what actually happened at any point in the story so almost none of the important parts are particularly here. None of the unimportant parts are either, so don't go getting your dragon pants on.

You know what else is, you have to decide whether you're writing a satire or not. You can't just, like, see how it goes. We end up in this horrific muddle where half the plot is a Real Housewives satire and the other half is some kind of earnest racial thing or whatever, and maybe the Furies show up? And all of it's written by someone who feels like she's really hoping to get an A- in her senior writing seminar, and it's just a fucking mess. I have examples, here's some bullshit Headley wrote:
We are a white deer and we are a black raven and we are blood in the snow. We are a sword made of old metal and we are a gun filled with old bullets and we are a woman standing before her mother’s bones, holding her family treasure, broken.

Oh man, it's so boring. Particularly toward the end, where the action thinks it's picking up but she starts banging on with malarkey like this for pages and pages, and you're like what is even happening here, like literally you're off on so much D&D poetry that I can't even tell who's getting stabbed with what dumb old sword.

Listen, somebody goes and writes "Beowulf in the suburbs" on the cover and a lot of us are going to read it. That sounds great. It could be great! But it's not this book, which isn't even decent slash fic.
Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,024 reviews48.4k followers
July 19, 2018
You don’t need to be a Tolkien-level expert in Old English to enjoy “The Mere Wife,” but it helps if you enjoyed Seamus Heaney’s glorious translation of “Beowulf” or endured that bizarre animated version written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, starring Angelina Jolie as the least convincing (and most naked) incarnation of Grendel’s mother. Headley borrows, twists and repurposes everything from her source text, sometimes riding parallel to the original and sometimes abandoning it altogether.

The dexterity of Headley’s wit is evident right there in her title, “The Mere Wife.” That’s a sly pun on the ancient and modern meanings of “mere,” denoting both “lake” and “insignificant.” But there’s more than one wife drowning in insignificance in this novel. From start to finish, this is a story about where women take refuge and how they wield power. Chapter by chapter, we hear about them in different voices: first person and third person, along with a chorus of older women that sounds closer to a Greek tragedy than an Anglo-Saxon poem. . . .

To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post:

To watch the Totally Hip Video Book Review of 'The Mere Wife,' click here:
Profile Image for karen.
3,976 reviews170k followers
Want to read
June 26, 2018
a suburban retelling of Beowulf?? oh, this could be SO GOOD.

please be so good.
Profile Image for Jenia.
412 reviews102 followers
July 26, 2018
Listen. There's lots of ways I could start this review. I'm going to start it with, "The Mere Wife is a retelling of Beowulf in the suburbs," because this is easily one of the best books I've read this year and that's the best elevator pitch I can offer.

The book centres on Dana Mills, an American marine who goes to fight overseas in the War on Terror. She gets captured, is executed on camera... and then wakes up 6 months later, pregnant. Scared of what might happen to her and her possibly-miracle, possibly-monster baby, she flees back to her old home at the foot of an ancient mountain. But while Dana was overseas, her old neighbourhood was bulldozed and replaced with the high class, picket-fence-and-dinner-parties suburb Herot Hall. She settles in old tunnels within the mountain instead, content to raise her son, Gren, quietly within those confines. Gren, on the other hand, is not content. And thus Dana's world and the world of Herot Hall begin to collide.

Lately I've stumbled across a few "feminist retellings" of older, male-centric works. I'm not sure if it's a current trend in SFF or if I just got lucky, but either way I am into it. I'm unfortunately far less familiar with Beowulf than I was with Circe's myths, but oh did it draw me in every bit as strongly. In the original (Wiki tells me), the warrior Beowulf slays the monster Grendel and then his mother — referred to only as 'Grendel's mother' — seeks revenge on Beowulf and is slain by him as well. In act 3, Bewoulf also kills a dragon. In this reinterpretation, the focus is on both "monster" and mother, offering a different reasoning for their actions and not necessarily the same fate.

But the focus is equally on Willa, the seemingly perfect hostess of Herot Hall, and her young son Dylan. The Mere Wife is a book about parallels and opposites. For both women, their opposite is the invader, the "other". For both boys, their opposite is something to be curious about, to want to get to know. While Dana, with her fierceness and protective love, was my favourite, I equally enjoyed all the characters. All of them are flawed and the motivations of even the most flawed are understandable. (Yes, I promise Beowulf himself shows up eventually.)

The book explores other themes too. The effects of war trauma. Gated communities and gentrification. Love across boundaries. A parent's desire to protect vs a child's desire to explore. The price of power for the "women behind the throne". A mother's terror when her son looks different enough to be targeted. At the core of each of these struggles remains the division between "one of us" and "the dangerous them", something that frankly feels very current and relevant today.

The duality is also seen in the fantastical elements of the book. In terms of genre I think it's best put as "magical realism". You can take everything as presented — Gren is an inhuman monster; Dana came back to life; Act 3, like the original, features a dragon. You can equally take it as a soldier suffering from brutal PTSD. I'm still not sure which reading I prefer. Both, in parallel, I suppose.

This uncertainty is further heightened by the absolutely gorgeous writing. Is it a metaphor or is it something fantastical? The book feels almost poetic, very fitting for a modernisation of an ancient saga. I particularly loved the interludes from the perspective of several "Greek choruses", from the spirits/natural inhabitants of the mountain to the pack of mothers/grandmothers of Herot Hall. The excellent audiobook version, narrated by Susan Bennett, also enhances the poetry-like prose.

So. The next step for me will probably be to turn to the beautiful Beowulf that's currently collecting dust on my parent's shelf. The next step for you, I very much hope, will be to turn to the first chapter of The Mere Wife:
The hall loomed golden towers antler-tipped; it was asking for burning, but that hadn't happened yet. You know how it is: Every castle wants invading, and every family has enemies born within it. Old grudges boil up. Listen.

I especially recommend this book for:

- Fans of mythological retellings
- Magical realism fans
- "Literary fantasy" fans
- But ones who enjoy the occasional fast-paced action scenes amidst thematic exploration of the human condition. Look, this is based on a story that has three epic, badass battles after all.
- People interested in female warriors, after the war
- Fans of Madeline Miller's Circe
- People interested in explorations of the "other"
- English lit students who want to raise their hand in Beowulf 101 next Autumn and go, "Um excuse me professor, but "aglæcwif" can also mean "woman-warrior", not just "monstrous hell bride"; in fact I read this interesting book this summer about..."
Profile Image for Hannah.
588 reviews1,047 followers
July 5, 2019
This was absolutely breathtaking. Again I am finding myself in the situation that a book is so very custom-made for me that my review will definitely not be objective in the least. There was very little chance of me not loving this – and I knew this after the first chapter. Maria Dahvana Headley had me hooked. This was incredible, so as usual in such cases, this will be a review filled with superlatives.

Maria Dahvana Headley loosely retells Beowolf but in the best possible way: setting it in today’s suburbia against the backdrop of an unnamed war abroad; I found it worked brilliantly but as I haven’t read Beowolf (although I did read the wikipedia summary in preparation for this book) I cannot speak to its success as a retelling. The fantastical elements are rendered in a way which makes in unclear what is real and what isn’t. I found the reading experience disorienting and claustrophobic (I mean this as an absolute positive).

The book mainly focuses on two women: Dana, a traumatized ex-soldier living off the grid with her son Gren, and Willa who is aiming to be the perfect suburban wife to her plastic surgeon husband and her son Dylan. These two women are one of the high points of this altogether impressive book. They are both flawed but compelling in the best possible way. They rage against the unfairness of their lives while simultaneously inflicting unfairness onto their sons. Willa especially was just my favourite kind of character: she is awful but has her reasons, she is believable while still being interesting, and her voice was impeccably done.

The way in which the Maria Dahvana Headley plays with voices and perspectives was another part that worked as if it had been written with me in mind. She mixes first person (for Dana) with close third person (for Willa) and passages rendered in a we-perspective (the mothers), always making careful use of repetition and imagery. Her sentences are breathtaking and the way her language flows just made my heart hurt while never sacrificing the emotional core of her work. I might have found a new favourite author.

Content warning: PTSD, war, loss of limbs and eyes, death (of children and spouses), animal hunting, miscarriage, abortion; (I am more unsure than usual if I mentioned everything, so if you have a specific trigger, please let me know so I can tell you)

You can find this review and other thoughts on books on my blog.
Profile Image for Charlie Anders.
Author 145 books3,672 followers
September 15, 2018
The Mere Wife is getting a ton of acclaim, and justly so. This retelling of the Beowulf legend focuses on two women: Grendel's mother Dana (a veteran of Middle East conflicts who came home mysteriously pregnant) and Willa Herot, the rich suburban woman who ends up marrying Beowulf. (In this version, Beowulf is called Ben Woolf). It's a story about women trying (mostly in vain) to protect their sons, and to deal with past traumas. But also, it's about displacement, because Willa Herot's fancy gated community has been built over the town that Dana grew up in, and the bones of Dana's long-buried ancestors are somewhere underneath Herot Hall. Also, the relationship between Dana's son Gren(del) and Willa's son Dylan is really beautiful and understated, and I loved all the stuff of these two boys finding each other when they're on opposite sides of this huge divide of class and history. Also, the "Greek Chorus" sections, where various suburban mothers and spirits of the mountain, and even a pack of police dogs, comment on the action, are just gorgeous and brilliant. Headley writes beautifully and almost every page had a passage that I found myself pausing to re-read. My only quibble is with the ending, because it felt as though some pieces were falling into place a bit too neatly, while other stuff was left unresolved for no particular reason. But overall, it's a gorgeous piece of work, and even if you aren't particularly steeped in the Beowulf story, you'll find a lot to admire in the story of these two women who are each trapped in their own illusions, unable to understand each other. Super recommended.

Edited to add: I've had so many conversations about this book since I've read it, and I've kept thinking about it, and I was lucky enough to hear the author read from it recently. I have a feeling this is going to be one of those books that we're all going to be talking about for a long long time.
Profile Image for Anthony.
Author 4 books1,824 followers
October 11, 2019
This book is beloved by several of my friends here on Goodreads, but I cannot say that it is beloved by me. I feel like I’m a bit of a grump for saying this, but while it started out more or less in a promising fashion, its charms became increasingly elusive, and by the last quarter, its fractured narrative and stylistic leaps and confusing characterizations conspired to cause it to devolve into near nonsense.

I think Headley has some formidable skill with wordcraft — albeit an often excessively arch and bitter skill — and at times there is an almost incantatory, propulsive energy to her sentences. But ultimately I think that while with this book she is trying to say profound things about who’s a hero and who’s a monster — a word she leans into over and over again as an unwelcome reminder of what this book is about — she really, brutally fails at that, and winds up saying not much of anything that resonates on a human level, at all.

Among her other failings: rich white suburban ladies and big strong white male cops are sort of easy targets, really, in the end, and Headley ultimately doesn’t add anything new to the miles of prose that have already been written — much more incisively and with much more depth and specificity — about both sorts of folks.

I love myths and legends and allegories and poetic language; I believe in their metaphorical power that at their best can shine a bright light on the human experience; and I was hopeful that this book, unabashedly inspired as it is by Beowulf in particular, and by the notion of legends and stories in general, would soar into gorgeous, stirring heights. But in the end it just flailed about a lot, painting some vivid pictures here and there, eliciting a chuckle every now and then, but finally just bloodily and histrionically sputtering itself silly.

I apologize to those for whom this book was beautiful and moving and stirring, but for me it was pretentious and impenetrable and very very frustrating.
Profile Image for Allison Hurd.
Author 3 books687 followers
October 7, 2019
Wow. I am utterly blown away by this book. It has no business being this good. I'd expected a sort of interesting look at the story from the "monster's" side of things as has been so popular lately. I expected a thickly plastered white take on the myth, with maybe a dose of feminism on the way. I was not prepared. Instead I got this masterpiece of allegory.

CONTENT WARNING: (no actual spoilers, just a list of topics)

Things that took my breath away:

-The dedication. She'd won me over with a sentence.

-The prologue. I mean holy f***. THAT is a prologue. It throws you so bodily into the story and the narrative structure that you just can't escape. It's perfect. It's more than perfect, it's sublime.

-The commentary on trauma and war. It's so real feeling and so desperate. Without saying it, it's also a huge rebuke of the war in Iraq and war in general.

-The commentary on kyriarchy. The bleak reality of patriarchy, racism, classism, immigrant status are all just so poignant. Headley captures it in words that rend your heart, but don't feel like the hand-wringing white guilt way, or the "rub your nose in horror" exploitative way. It's so honest and so stripped of all pretense that I think only monsters wouldn't be moved.

-The writing. The most amazing blend of the great epic poetry "feel" of storytelling with modern sensibilities and structures. It's really such a delicate balance that makes everything feel at once contemporary and eternal.

-The "chorus" chapters. I just loved the chapters where multiple entities shared a consciousness. It was such a unique and relatable take that again added to the mythic quality of the writing and how these same themes that we've been discussing for thousands of years keep recurring for us.

I had a bit of difficulty with some of the roles towards the end, but truly this book deserves way more attention than I'm seeing. If you've thought Madeline Miller's work was noteworthy, this is on a different level. By far one of the best retellings (the best?) I've ever read, and one of the most thoughtful books I've ever read. It's Ursula K. Le Guin-esque in how much meaning is kneaded into each sentence, and yet despite the density it's consumable in a way that kept me up late and made me late to appointments. Just spectacular. I'll definitely be re-reading this in the future and looking for more by this author.
Profile Image for Spencer Orey.
527 reviews117 followers
December 31, 2018
This made me want to read Beowulf, so that's something. The actual story is alright? It's actually a bit sparse, extended and dressed up with interesting and occasionally experimental prose. Some of that didn't land with me, but enough did that I appreciated how the text opened up larger questions around whether we can ever really be safe, what kinds of monsters we imagine in our contemporary world, and what and who gets buried in attempts to build new exclusive communities.

I love the concept. Beowulf in the suburbs! The strong commentaries on the endless Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the horrible consequences of war for soldiers and veterans really say something about our heroic myths. Still, my favorite sections were the grumblings of tough suburban matriarchs holding everyone in check.

But all the queer characters were killed right after they came out, so that was a real misstep. Not cool.
Profile Image for Claire.
804 reviews175 followers
December 10, 2019
I don’t even really know where to begin talking about how great I think this book is. The Mere Wife is an exquisitely told, brutal revisioning of Beowulf, set in modern, Stepford-like suburbia. In this way it is a story of mothers and sons, the equal intensity and distance of that bond. However, it is much more than this at the same time. Set against the backdrop of an unnamed (but ultimately recognisable) war, this is a story about the distancing of domestic life from global crisis, and what happens when those two world intersect. It’s a story of the wild and the tamed; the natural and the controlled. Headley asks her reader big questions about the impact of othering, social isolation, and the pressures of suburban conformity. It is excellent in many ways which I cannot adequately express here. A must read.
Profile Image for Tamsien West (Babbling Books).
608 reviews323 followers
July 8, 2018
This book is EXCELLENT. I don't really have words for how enthralled I was by it. The style and language were poetic, the story was really engaging and there were so many layers. A feminist, modern day retelling of Beowulf - apparently that is what was missing from my life.

The moment I finished I wanted to go right back to the start and read it again. Instant favourite.
Profile Image for Sarah.
604 reviews145 followers
April 18, 2019
“The world isn't large enough for heroes and monsters at once. There's too much danger of confusion between the two categories.”

4.5 stars rounded up to 5. I finished this book a week ago, and I have been delaying writing the review, because honestly, there’s no way I can do it justice. The Mere Wife is a contemporary retelling of Beowulf. Not only does it move at an exciting pace, while also containing lots of twists and turns, it’s largely allegorical, and gives the reader a lot to think about in just three hundred short pages.

I’m going to start by saying, generally, contemporary settings and times are not my thing. I read for escapism. I prefer fantastical places, settings, events, characters, etc. I picked it up mostly because people who have far better bookish taste than me were interested in a buddy read, but also because I think there’s something incredibly vicious about modern-day suburban life: competing with the Joneses, whose grass is greener, that sort of thing.

It was even better than I had hoped. The dedication reads: “For anonymous and all the stories she told.” I knew right from the beginning I was in for a treat, something sharp and cutting and unapologetic. Moving onto the prologue, Headley opens with:

“Say it. The beginning and the end at once. I'm face down in a truck bed, getting ready to be dead.”

This is one of the best prologues I have ever read. This book starts with a bang, hooks its claws in you and refuses to let go until the end.

One of our MCs, Willa Herot, is savage in such a way that I couldn’t wait to see what she would do next. Her character and her thoughts are incredibly loathsome, and yet, she’s also really sympathetic. Her life has never been her own. She’s expected, as the wife of a doctor, to be pretty and perfect, meet all the standards everyone has set for her, and hold up her husband all the while. Not to complain about his shortcomings, only work on improving her own.

“You don't really own anything. Nothing is yours forever, not your body, not your youth, not even your mind.”

Dana Mills is our second MC. She’s a veteran, and she suffers from PTSD. She’s Gren’s mother, and all she wants is to see her son grow up safe. Dana acts as a catch all stand in for most of the oppressed peoples of the world. She’s incredibly sympathetic, and arguably the hero of our story. Her chapters are heartbreaking, and filled with bone chilling statements, and observations of the world we live in.

“The world has teeth and claws, and my baby thinks he can walk in it. Hotel balconies and back rooms, speeches given in public, children marching, fists up, nothing to shield their hearts from bullets. They shoot, walk away, let him bleed...My son becomes a place where the sidewalk is stained.”

Headley takes these two women, who couldn’t be more different, and somehow manages to give them common ground. She does the same with Dylan and Grendel. The lines between everything, hero and monster, haves and have nots, become blurred.

My favorite chapters are the chorus chapters. Sometimes they are told from the POV of the mothers of Herot Hall, sometimes hounds, sometimes ghosts. They are written in first person plural and invoke a sense of war, marching forward, collectively, against any threat. Every single chorus chapter absolutely blew me away.

“Do you think sixty-five-year-old women don't go to war? We are always at war. Our husbands spent their lives in comfortable chairs. Have we ever sat in comfortable chairs? No. Yoga balls, haunches tensed."

It was an empowering read for women, no matter your background, and I loved every glorious moment. But Headley manages to comment on many issues. Race and racism. Oppression. Politics. War. Hero worship. Feminism. The 1%. It’s a book that has something for everyone, carefully dissecting and picking apart everyday modern life.

“The famous ones kept going, video, photo, headlines, and here they still are, running countries, pressing buttons, standing in offices, insisting all the money in the world belongs to them, pushing secrets through votes, starving the bottom so the top can feast.”

My only real complaint about the book, was the ending. A lot of things weren’t quite clear to me about the end. It felt very rushed. I had a lot of questions. In a book that’s only 300 pages long, I felt like there was plenty of time to dig a little deeper into the details. It’s also the end chapters that deviate the most from the Beowulf storyline itself, where everything prior to that had been pretty much on point. The ending is the only reason it wasn’t quite a five star read for me.

I highly recommend this both as a thought provoking, literary read, and for readers who just want to be entertained.

Content Warnings:

This review can also be found at:Hamlets & Hyperspace.
Profile Image for colleen the convivial curmudgeon.
1,155 reviews286 followers
November 6, 2019
I've been putting off this review, because I don't really know what to say. Needless to say from the rating, I didn't like it. I guess I'd say it's mostly the "poetic" writing style that I didn't gel with. It was just... endless. So many words to say so very little.

I mean, sure, there are a lot of themes here. Racism, sexism, motherhood, gender roles, humanity, monsters... but, like, this book could've been much shorter for the actual content of the story. (Granted, it was only 300 pages, but it was the longest 300 pages ever.)

Instead we get all of these alternating and changing perspectives and points-of-view and internal monologues, and they just go on and on in circles, ultimately saying the same handful of things in a myriad of hard-to-follow ways.

Speaking of hard-to-follow, the writing style makes the action scenes nigh unintelligible.

Or maybe it's just because I started skimming and my eyes would glaze over and I just didn't fucking care about any of these people or their stupid ass story by the end.


Also - for a book that's alleged to be feminist, I could've done without the whole "the point of woman is to be a mother" bullshit.
Profile Image for Para (wanderer).
356 reviews191 followers
December 28, 2018
I have to admit I wasn’t too sure of the “suburban Beowulf” premise at first. But after a lot of praise and prodding by Jen of The Fantasy Inn (you were, as always, right – it was up my alley) I had to give it a try. I’m still not quite sure what I read, but I sure enjoyed it.

Listen to me. Listen. In some countries, you kill a monster when it’s born. Other places, you kill it only when it kills someone else. Other places, you let it go, out into the forest or the sea, and it lives there forever, calling for others of its kind. Listen to me, it cries. Maybe it’s just alone.

I have to admit I have only passing familiarity with Beowulf. It didn’t prevent me from enjoying the story at all, but I am wondering about all the connections I may have missed and the gaps the review might have because of it. So keep that in mind.

In essence, The Mere Wife follows the stories of two women and their sons: Dana, a former soldier who was supposed to be killed on camera but somehow survived and believes she gave birth to a monster, and Willa, a suburban wife seemingly living a perfect life in her gilded cage of a gated community. They’re both fiercely protective of their sons, wanting to keep them within confines of the world they live in, and see the other as the enemy, so when their sons meet and befriend each other, things get…messy.

It’s beautifully written (just see the number of quotes I felt compelled to include!), but there’s nothing happy about their story. Those looking for neat resolutions should look elsewhere. Everything and everyone in it is deeply fucked up. Dana’s PTSD, Willa’s controlling mother, the very traditionalist gated community…it explores the themes of the other, us vs. them, gentrification, horrors of war, how one can live a seemingly perfect life and still be deeply unhappy, what does it mean to be a monster, the stories of those who are usually ignored. And it’s wonderful in that.

There’s no sign of her gravestone now. I don’t know how they got permission to build mini-mansions on top of a graveyard, but I guess they did. The cemetery was almost two hundred years old. People never think, until it happens to their place, that all construction is destruction. The whole planet is paved in the dead, who are ignored so the living can dig their foundations.

It’s also magical realism in the way that we don’t really know whether all the little odd things are real or delusions. And unlike in The Gray House , it’s entirely left up to the reader to decide. It adds an additional layer of ambiguity and messiness on top, but also a lot of potential for discussion of different interpretations.

One of the most interesting things about it is the structure. In the beginning, we are introduced to the different translations of the Old English word hwæt. The chapters are grouped into sections named after them, and every chapter in each section starts with that word. Then there’s the matter of POV. There are first-person chapters written from Dana’s perspective, third-person chapters for Willa, “choir” chapters in plural from the perspective of wives or the mountain.

And all of the above? It works. It’s ambitious, sure, but with execution to match, so don’t be dissuaded.

If something’s happened once, we could all find love again. If something’s happened once, none of us are done for. None of us are the last of us. The story is all of the voices, not just the voice of the one who tells it at the end.

Enjoyment: 4.5/5
Execution: 4.5/5

Recommended to: prose fans, those looking for experimental/literary books
Not recommended to: anyone looking for a happy story, those who don’t want another book with the “bury the gays” trope

More reviews on my blog, To Other Worlds.
Profile Image for Gabi.
689 reviews117 followers
December 25, 2019
Re-listened in December 2019 - the impact was even stronger this time. Susan Bennett does such a fantastic audio rendition of the raw emotions in this book that feels like a novel length poem. Fantastic!
Definitely one of the most impressing books I've read (listened to) this year.


The world isn’t large enough for monsters and heroes at once. There is too much danger of confusion between the two categories.

This quote is spot on for the book.

„The mere wife“ was a terrific experience, due to the wonderful prose of Maria Dahvana Headley enhanced by a vivid audio narration by Susan Bennett. Other than the general summaries I’m not familiar with the Beowulf myth, so I read this novel ‚as it is‘ without making or looking for comparisons to the work it is derived from.

So what I got out of it is this: A story about lost people and failed lives, about the desperate attempt to protect a child from the (real or imagined) dangers of the world, of the desolate fate of living the „perfect life“, the overall impression of not belonging, not being good enough for ‚them‘. Dana’s PTSD from the horrible attrocities of war is the starting point of the book. But very soon it becomes apparent that Willa’s mental sanity suffers no less from her pretending of leading the perfect life of an upperclass housewife. The fates of those two mothers are told in confronting POVs, both with a great understanding of the tangled depths of the human soul. I could feel both of them so vividly. In the end I could not say which life looked more desperate to me, even though, on the surface there was no question about that.

In contrast to the hopeless attempts of the adults to get a grasp on their lives we see the innocence of the two boys, who just want to have a friend to play. As so often the world through the kids‘ eyes would be the better one – but as so often nobody listens to them.

Especially outstanding for me were the POV parts that read like Greek choruses. On Dana’s side the voices of the mountain/the lake, on Willa’s side the voices of ‚the mothers‘ (plus one rather cool POV of track hounds). This gave me the feeling of supernatural beings that held the reins in a play where the protagonists had no real saying in their fate. And if it didn’t work out, well, then on to the next stage – who cares for the pawns?

All of this made for a wonderful tight narration, wherein the reader feels the doom from the very beginning, yet still hopes for some salvation along the way.
Profile Image for Oleksandr Zholud.
1,051 reviews101 followers
October 15, 2019
This is a great but heart wrenching story. It is loosely based on Beowulf and it is better to become acquainted at least with the plot of the original story for the fuller appreciation of this one. When I heard about the book, I assumed it will be akin to The Song of Achilles, i.e. retelling of a classical story but from a novel point of view. It is not. The story it tells, if one is unaware of the original is a contemporary psychological drama and social tensions.

This is a story of Dana Mills, ex-solder left for dead by the USA in one of the desert countries, who arrived several moths later heavily pregnant and with a severe case of PTSD. She is the main narrator, even if the story has quite a few other voices (each magnificently done!). She runs away and hides in the mountain near her birthplace to give birth to her son, Gren (so, here is Grendel, a mountain giant, and she is his mother). The other main narrator is Willa, a “perfect housewife” from the imaginary 50s with serious psychic problems of her own. She is married to a man, who gentrified the town next to the mountain (including deportation of undesirable original inhabitants).

The social part reminds me of Mort Sahl saying, “Liberals feel unworthy of their possessions. Conservatives feel they deserve everything they’ve stolen.” While I disagree with blaming the system for all problems (“starving the bottom so the top can feast”), this is clearly the case that the Left has all the best artists.

The story is masterfully done and if it was known better at the time, I guess it could have won 2019 Nebula.
Profile Image for Dawn F.
494 reviews67 followers
October 4, 2019
DNF at 18%. I was wholly annoyed with the writing style and it didn’t get any better. Lines like, “Gren isn’t a sleeper. Neither am I. Who can sleep at times like this?” made me yell WHAT TIMES?? out loud to my house plants. We haven’t been told anything about “these times”, it doesn’t mean anything! And it continued like this this. It’s honestly just a lot of self important, bloated hot air that wants to sound clever but is essentially meaningless. I’m not even staying for the promised slash.
Profile Image for Lucy Dacus.
89 reviews12.6k followers
February 8, 2019
This book is incredible. Headley plays with the original text of Beowulf, bringing it a modern context. I particularly appreciate the examination of post-war trauma and classist conflict.
Profile Image for Sarah.
62 reviews
October 9, 2019
This book is absolutely incredible. I'm not a fan of Beowulf so I was a little bit sceptical about reading this but I'm really glad that I did now. Bringing the story into a modern setting is a stroke of genius and I found myself completely immersed in each of the characters stories and how they slowly intertwine. It is one hell of a masterpiece.
Profile Image for Jessica Woodbury.
1,586 reviews1,985 followers
July 23, 2018
Both dream-like and razor sharp, this is technically a retelling of Beowulf but don't worry about remembering it from way back in high school. An avant garde Big Little Lies, looking at mothers and sons and the ways women build power and strength.
Profile Image for Kristin B. Bodreau.
271 reviews47 followers
October 20, 2019
I am very torn over this book. I think if I had known going in that the “Fantasy” tag was really only applicable in the fact that it’s a retelling of a story that contained monsters, I would have been less disappointed. This was really just general fiction with a flowery writing style reminiscent of legendary tales. If you squint and turn your head about 45 degrees, there may be an iota of magical realism.

The disappointment in the lack of the fantastical aside, it is a very well written story that draws from the source material in a way that is familiar, without being too identical. I certainly enjoyed this more than Beowulf itself, though that is not surprising as I tend to prefer modern settings.

I think that my favorite departure from the source is that Ben Woolf is shown for what Beowulf seemed to me. An overly masculine, competitive, boastful mess of a person who hides his insecurities behind trying to be everyone’s hero.

Overall, a solid 4 stars for ambitious and mostly successful writing. But a weak three for actual enjoyment. I tend to prefer more plot and less agonizing character introspection.

If you’re planning to pick this one up, I do recommend Beowulf before hand. As much as I was not actually a fan of that story, it does add a lot to the reading of this one.
Profile Image for Hank.
779 reviews74 followers
October 8, 2019
I found myself trying to compare every little element of The Mere Wife to Beowulf at the beginning. It made this more of an English project and less of a fun read. I forced myself to stop and just listen to the story and after that it was magical (not literally, well sort of I guess, whatever). The not so subtle commentary on war, society, husbands and wives, good and bad ways to deal with the fear of raising kids and ultimately what you want to live your life for, was all perfect. The elitism of Herot Hall, impressively done, over the top yet all too believable, along with the bleakness of the cave set up a perfect push and pull between the two sides.

The atmosphere of the book was reminiscent, for me, of Spinning Silver. It had a first person, detached kind of quality where everything that happens is somewhat surreal and oppressive yet not quite tangible.

I very much enjoyed it once I just relaxed and went with the story without trying to predict how it fit with Beowulf although I still would like to know which part was the dragon

1 star docked because I got a bit confused at the end and wanted a different ending.
Profile Image for Kelly.
878 reviews3,978 followers
January 10, 2021
I liked the idea of this far more than the execution.

...which is, I know, essentially the book reviewer’s version of “Bless your heart,” but I honestly can’t think of anything kinder to say. I do think the idea of how Gren’s mother would translate to the modern world and why she might be the way she is was great. I can definitely see what she was trying to do with the prose, updating the language of the classic. I liked the idea of the Greek chorus of women. I can offer the excuse that while I know the plot and themes from general being-around-books osmosis, I have not read Beowulf myself. So you can place some blame with me for not fully “getting it,” if you like.

But one thing I really do not get that you’re going to have to explain to me is how you put those five stars up there with this writing. This clipped, maudlin, vague prose. These pages dotted to absolute distraction with painfully strained metaphors that were stop-in-my-tracks awful to the point I almost stopped reading by page 100. The magical incantation at the beginning failed so hard that I had to start over to try to see it with fresh eyes and find what was supposed to be so captivating about it. (And you know I love any story with an incantation. I wanna give +100 every time I see one.) I get what she was trying to do with translating us into the world of epic poetry and the land of the fragmented past that is a different country, but it did not draw me into the spell. I might have either suggested a slow burn into the full on stylistic choice or dialing it down from 11 to 2 on the “what-the-hell-is-going-on” scale. While again I understand that the plot isn’t the point, the plot *was* quite difficult to keep track of and forcing me to re-read prose I found frustrating to begin with to understand wtf had just happened didn’t make me like it any more.

While I found Dana easy to sympathize with, I found her increasingly hard to watch. While I understand Willa as a type, I honestly think it was a bit too dated to relate to. The suburbs are evil vs the “pure” mountain was... I dunno, fine I guess but too straightforward for me to listen to for the hundredth time in a story.

I did finish it though! Just for anyone in the future who wants to come here and comment about how I don’t get an opinion because I didn’t see the payoff. I saw it. It was not worth it.

Another sadly failed recommendation that I held out on for months. 2021 is not off to a great book start.
Profile Image for Ryan.
270 reviews57 followers
April 4, 2022
The Mere Wife is a wonderful critique of masculinities fragility and the key role that white feminism plays in racism. Its also a retelling of Beowulf, but don't let that put you off.

A book so good I'm scared to read more by the author, Maria Dahvana Headley, for fear it won't live up to the high standard that this set.
Profile Image for Kaa.
560 reviews51 followers
October 16, 2019
There are some really incredible things in this book, but I was left feeling very ambivalent about it.

The good:
-the "chorus" scenes. I especially liked the chapter from the perspective of the dogs, but all of the chapters using plural first-person narration were lovely.
-some of the messages around feminism and white womanhood, and especially around heroism, were pointed and sharp in a way I really appreciated.
-the way the narrative drew on the original text - it certainly isn't an exact re-telling, but I thought it was well-crafted.

What I didn't love:
-the end. And the end was also just generally disappointing/anti-climatic - this is the one place where this story veered from the original in a way that didn't work for me.
-the fuzziness of the author's message. It seemed like this book was trying to talk about too many things, and ended up not being able to make a strong statement about anything. I'm not saying that all books need to have a message - the issue for me here was that the author set up a whole bunch of messaging and then just left it hanging.
-(with the major caveat that I am white) I was very uncomfortable with the way the book handled race and oppression. Dana's racial identity was unclear to me and the people I read this book with, which for me really took away from what the author was trying to say about racism and oppression in the U.S. People of color don't have interchangeable experiences, and the lack of specificity about Dana's experience felt especially icky because of the way the author made connections to issues of race and racism in other parts of the book.
Profile Image for Erin Glover.
451 reviews36 followers
May 17, 2019
This one goes on my list of all-time favorites. While the novel is patterned after Beowulf, you don't have to have read that story to enjoy this book.

A female soldier returns from the desert war to her hometown. There is a video of her being beheaded, presumably by ISIS. Therefore her return is miraculous. Only no one knows she's alive. She doesn't remember how she got pregnant, but she gives birth to a brown boy whom she names Gren. They hide in an old train station tucked inside of a mountain overlooking Herot Hall and the rest of suburbia.

Her family used to own the land now occupied by privileged, white, suburban busybodies. Her family's land is now a gated community "with the rest of the perks of Herot: cageless chickens, free-range beef, vegetables untouched by progress."

As Gren gets older, he becomes curious about the town below the mountain, particularly about residents of Herot Hall who include mere wife Willa and her son Dylan. This curiosity eventually causes the mistress of Herot Hall, Willa, to label him a monster, bringing out the full force of the local police force headed by Officer Wolff. Meanwhile, Gren's mother has warned him about going down the mountain, telling him the town below is filled with monsters who will tear him limb-from-limb. "Who are the monsters? Who deserves killing?"

This story has it all. Fantastic fight scenes. A realistic and humorous view of modern-day suburban life rife with gossip and affairs. A look at the power of women on the battlefield and as members of suburban society. And on top of all the psychological and physical conflict both on the mountain and below, lies an intense love story.

There is something for everyone here.
Profile Image for Kaora.
559 reviews280 followers
November 27, 2018
This one sadly wasn't for me.

It started out quite promising. The writing was quick and witty and really showcased the talents of the writer.

So what happened?

This is a story that is very loosely based on Grendel set in a similar time to now. It bounces around from perspective to perspective, from Grendel, to Grendel's friend, to Grendel's mother, to the mother of Grendel's friend. Even the dogs are narrating at one point. This isn't bad in itself but I found the collective 'We' narration of the grandmothers to be irritating and couldn't get behind it at all.

The other thing that bothered me was the sheer selfishness of the characters. Especially Grendel's friend's mother who is convinced she should "get all she deserves". I don't want to spoil it too much, but I think she ruined the book for me. A seriously messed up woman, who had little to no explanation for being that way. This was just one example in a series of actions taken by characters that left me questioning. What is the point in that? Where is the motivation? Why??

I can see people liking this book and that is backed up by the fact that this book is rated over 4 stars, but for me the fast paced and clever writing wasn't enough. I need believable characters. Not necessarily like-able, but believable and this book was lacking in that.
Profile Image for Christopher Alonso.
Author 1 book254 followers
June 12, 2018
Maria Dahvana Headley has created a modern retelling of the epic Beowulf. Here, Headley uses the tale as the basis for a novel about privilege, class, rage, gentrification, whiteness, and the role of women. Of all of Headley's books, this, I think, is her most lyrical, sometimes begging to be read aloud, much like the epic would have been read aloud. Headley observes the role of women, particularly mothers, how pressure from others can change people in ways they never could have imagined. It poses the notion--whether monsters are made or they're born, waiting to be seen by the world.
Profile Image for Nicole.
826 reviews88 followers
December 29, 2019
I loved this. I'm always here for retellings, especially female-focused retellings, but this was QUALITY. I loved the author's spin on the story, while still capturing the feel of the source material; I loved the parallels and duality present throughout the book; I loved how there are multiple ways to interpret the events and yet they all feel right. I especially loved the Greek chorus of the mothers - their interludes were my favorite chapters!
Profile Image for Scottsdale Public Library.
3,180 reviews197 followers
April 7, 2021
"Listen. Long after the end of everything is supposed to have occurred, long after apocalypses have been calculated by cults and calendared by computers, long after the world has ceased believing in miracles, there's a baby born inside a mountain."
So begins the first chapter of The Mere Wife, Maria Dahvana Headley's modern retelling of Beowulf.
Willa Herot lives in the posh suburb, Herot Hall, with her husband, Roger, and their son Dylan. But, while the Herot family lives in luxury, in the mountain neighboring the suburb live Dana, a soldier suffering from PTSD, and her son Gren, who suffers from an unnamed deformity.
When Gren hears Dylan playing "Chopsticks" on the piano and wants to investigate, the border between Herot Hall and the outside world begin to blur.
Ben Woolf is the stand-in for Beowulf in the novel. Here he's a small town cop without much ambition. As the story progresses, we realize that Ben might not be the type of man worthy of having stories told about him.
No, this story is about Willa and Dana, two mothers doing their best to keep their families safe, no matter what the cost.
Headley's use of language is stunning. She takes a story that could have been a standard police procedural and makes it absolutely epic.
The Mere Wife is a truly unique fantasy novel. I recommend it, especially for those who enjoy seeing an author bend the English language to their will. – Mike M.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 953 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.