The Lunar Housewife is a delicious novel, focusing on Louise Leithauser, an aspiring writer who finds herself on the fringes of cold war activity during the McCarthy era. The novel opens at a party in 1953, filled with literary luminaries and pretty women, gathered at a Manhattan apartment to celebrate the second issue of the magazine Downtown. Louise’s boyfriend, Joe and his partner Harry are the founders. Harry’s wife Glynns is drunk. Harry, a philandering SOB publicly disappears with a pretty waitress, who Louise knows but does not want to be known to know. Harry and Joe let Louise write for the magazine under a pen name. Suddenly, she is given the task of interviewing and writing an article for Downtown about Ernest “Papa” Hemingway under her own name. But the article is stripped of anything that smacks of concerns Hemingway has with the United States government, his reasons for living in Cuba, and his current novel that would not be popular with some of the cold war types in the US. Meanwhile, when she travels to Italy with Joe and they have coffee with James Baldwin, Louise shares that she is working on a novel about an American woman who defects and goes to live on the moon with a Russian astronaut. Joe is furious. Joe and Louise are in a serious relationship. Glynns trusts no one but intermittently interacts with Louise. Harry starts a long term affair with the waitress. Various turns of events leave Louise totally confounded about what secrets Joe and Harry are keeping from her, how to hide her modest background from Joe, what to do about her nosy upstairs neighbor, her once kind but now distant lawyer boss, her novel and Papa Hemingway’s hat.
This novel is something of a coming of age story, with chapters including parts of Louise’s novel, meant to be a romance novel so it will sell and morphing into something more, with a political and social edge. Louise is in her twenties at a time there was burgeoning recognition of womens’ need to break out of stereotypes and frustrations with their designated roles. Of course from 1953-1955, these stereotypes were well-entrenched and Louise’s ambitions constantly fight with a tendency to consider more conventional choices that fundamentally conflict with her career aspirations.
Don’t assume all this is portrayed in a dull or pedantic way! Woods’ writing and storytelling throughout is entertaining, humorous, and her dedication of the book is to her young daughters, “with a wink.” She inserts a few famous people in speaking roles and many appear at parties and other settings, all included in the story flawlessly and with historic accuracy. This is done “just enough.” Like Louise’s novel within the novel, Woods offers us a “simple” piece of yellow cake but with a center dark chocolate, making it an intense flavorful read. Enjoy! Well worth a read and fun.