‘His Only Wife’ turns fairytale tropes upside down
When a poor young woman is offered the hand of a rich young man, the marriage seems like it should solve her problems. What happens when it doesn’t?
In her latest book, writer and professor Peace Adzo Medie puts a wonderfully contemporary spin on a fairytale trope. Set in Medie’s native Ghana, “His Only Wife” begins with a familiar premise: A sweet but poor young woman marries a prince – well, in this case, he’s a handsome, wealthy businessman. Against this familiar plot, Medie explores the complexities that strong women face as they learn to effectively navigate a patriarchal society.
At the center of the novel is young Afi Tekple. Not clever enough to earn a spot at the university like most of her classmates, Afi works as a seamstress in the small town where she has lived all her life. She and her widowed mother live in the home of her uncle along with his many wives and children. While her situation is far from dire, Afi is also well aware that her options in life are limited.
But then her mother’s employer, Faustina Ganyo, presents Afi with an unexpected opportunity. The strong – some might say scheming – woman suggests that Afi be married to her son, Elikem, a rich and powerful young entrepreneur. The woman has her own reasons for encouraging the marriage. Elikem is involved with another woman, whom his family cannot accept; they refer to her simply as “the Liberian woman.” The two of them have a child. Faustina’s plan, however, is to make Afi her son’s “only wife,” even telling Afi that she must lure Elikem away from the other woman and back into the family fold. In fact, Afi will be obligated to do so.
Afi’s small family thinks this is a wonderful arrangement. Her mother and her Uncle Pious heartily approve since the marriage will bring them prestige as well as financial security.
Young, compliant, and with no other real options, Afi accepts the marriage proposal. Her mother will be provided for, of course, but after hearing the stories his family has told her about the Liberian woman, Afi comes to believe she would practically be rescuing Elikem. With a keen sense of responsibility to both families, Afi pledges to help Eli realize what is best for him.
Eli consents to the marriage but does not even care enough to show up in person; on the day of the wedding, he sends a surrogate.
Following the ceremony, Afi moves from her small town to an apartment in Accra, Ghana’s glittering capital city. Eli’s family tends to all the arrangements as they assure Afi that her new husband will visit soon and that she should prepare for him. His mother instructs her to cook and clean and make herself attractive so as to be ready for when he appears, whenever that may be.
He finally does appear and melts Afi’s heart. He is so much more than she imagines – and the young woman falls in love with her prince. Though their initial meeting goes well, Eli leaves again, giving no indication of when he might return. In the meantime, he suggests that Afi might want to enroll in school to help her fill her days. Learning of her skills as a seamstress and her interest in fashion, he sends his sister around to take Afi to the city’s design schools.
It is here that Medie’s story departs from the traditional fairytale. Afi avails herself of benefits Cinderella never received, opportunities like an education that helps her develop her talents and begin to make a name for herself in the fashion world. There are no wicked stepsisters in this story, either. With Eli away for weeks at a time, Afi develops friendships with other women, including his sister and his brother’s girlfriend. These friends open her eyes to possibilities that she never knew existed – let alone imagined – for herself.
Her women friends also give Afi a clearer picture of the Liberian woman, who, it turns out, is not at all how Eli’s mother had described her. She discovers this for herself when the two meet by accident and Afi realizes Eli never needed to be rescued.
But neither does she. In this very contemporary story, Afi gets her fairytale ending, just not the one that generations of girls have been told to expect. Afi rescues herself.