MacKenzie Bezos, wife of the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, writes about the plight of the introverted wife in her novels.
Photograph by Elena Seibert
Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos are seeking a divorce, having amassed twenty-five years of marriage, four children, and a net worth of a hundred and thirty-seven billion dollars. Jeff is the founder of Amazon. MacKenzie is a writer who studied fiction under Toni Morrison, at Princeton, and has published two novels, “The Testing of Luther Albright,” in 2005, and “Traps,” in 2013. Both books were released by traditional imprints, not Amazonian ones (Bezos has referred to his wife as “the fish that got away”), and one of them, “Luther Albright,” is good. There is a particular difficulty in discerning whether this book is good, not because the text qua text is somehow elusive or inscrutable but because one struggles to read it without sweeping for psychological clues.
A confirmation bias is at work, and the belief to be confirmed is that a book by MacKenzie Bezos—one half of the richest couple in the world, partner to a man who has exploded paradigms of retail, labor, even capitalism itself, and upended the very industry that publishes her books—just has to be a roman à clef. Surely she would draw on such rich material, so close to hand?
“The Testing of Luther Albright” follows a repressed engineer who specializes in “water resources” and who, in a sense, loses his family by failing to acknowledge his feelings. The idealized wife, Liz, is insanely supportive. Like a cathedral, her features possess a “composite power” that men can’t help trying to “decode.” She’s loving, endlessly adjuvant, the Giving Tree of spouses. At the end of the book, she dies of cancer. Luther strives for impassive rationality. He buries himself in home-improvement projects as his son presses him, less and less gently, for a measure of emotional honesty. The book is swollen with metaphors about dams and hidden pipes. For all its heavy-handedness, though, Bezos draws her characters with uncommon psychological insight, even when they don’t have the language or the self-awareness to show any vulnerability.
Luther combines a sense of his own infallibility with a zeal for process and quantification. (Incidentally, Jeff Bezos once described himself as a “professional dater” who assessed romantic prospects via analytic systems derived from investment banking.) Liz’s investment in her partner’s career, meanwhile, can be readily quantified: when Luther takes a new job, she finds “a different way to celebrate—champagne, a cake, an office nameplate hidden in the butter dish” every night for a week. As Luther withdraws from their relationship, Liz begins volunteering for a crisis hotline. (“I tried to picture her there,” Luther says, “listening to a stranger’s worries across the telephone lines because I would not share my own.”) Liz yearns only to feel important and useful, which Luther understands. “It’s you who’s important,” Luther tells Liz on the night of her beautiful death, under the stars. “Everyone comes to you. You help everyone you touch. . . . You’re the most important person I know.”
“Traps,” the second novel, promotes a similar vision of selfless domestic service through four female protagonists, all of whom ultimately find meaning and purpose in their relationships. (The Library of Congress classifies “Traps” under “self-realization in women.”) The book is flush with the sort of magical spouses that “Luther Albright” introduced: Jessica, an actress, is married to a pediatric physician who always says the right thing, drawing “real satisfaction from his ability to help and to heal.” Jessica, meanwhile, embodies “the gigantic megawatt center of their family universe,” her voice “retelling their little family stories, webbing their lives with nostalgia.” “Traps” glorifies the homemaker as a secret weapon, a tireless and unsung engine that “makes everything beautiful.” Unlike “Luther Albright,” it tries to give the Super Spouse an interior life—in other words, what if Liz had more agency, more mess, more clearly defined career aspirations? Bezos establishes a dichotomy between caregivers and protagonists, then sets about demonstrating the falseness of that division. Her overt goal for all of her female characters is a state of emotional openness and self-acceptance, sustained by a mesh of close familial bonds.
By 2013, the year “Traps” was published, Bezos existed in the public eye as a wholesome cipher, one who commanded unimaginable billions of dollars and co-hosted the Met Gala but still drove the kids to school in a Honda minivan. The plight of the public-facing introvert is one that “Traps” pays careful attention to: Jessica has won an Oscar but is terrified to venture outside, where paparazzi lie in wait and the press dissects her most intimate choices. “She had made her world so small trying to escape the judgments of strangers,” Bezos writes, “drawing in and in, shopping online and hosting events.” At one point, Jessica confronts her grifter father as he languishes in a coma:
She could say anything, deliver any rebuttal, and he would hear it and he would neither be able to respond nor to deliver a tape of her words to a tabloid to be cut and twisted in misleading ways. She can in fact declare anything—that he’s been wrong about her, and that the way he has profited from betraying her is also wrong. That she is a good daughter, a good wife and mother, a good person. That she is simply good.
Who wouldn’t dream about reciting, in finalized form, her own life story, with no possibility of reply?
Unfortunately, “Traps” contains few of “Luther Albright” ’s merits, and most of its flaws. It’s fatally sentimental and, at times, improbable, even as it labors for realism. Bezos recounts, in migraine-inducing detail, every single physical movement a character makes—just how she tears open a tea bag or pulls the zipper on her backpack. The thumping metaphors of “Luther Albright” live on: this time as wounded animals and mementos hidden in storage. “Traps” feels “writerly” after the fashion of the M.F.A. studio, as if the book had internalized the metrics of literary gatekeeping that Amazon aimed to upset.
Amazon, or Jeff Bezos himself, has played the chief villain in a fable about the imperilled book industry for a long time. One does not expect the hunter—or rather, the hunter’s hugely supportive wife—to appreciate, let alone practice, the virtues of the hunted. The particular ways in which “Luther Albright” is good—its emotional intelligence, its subtlety, its empathy for its male protagonist—stand in contrast to the allure of Jeff Bezos as a celebrity entrepreneur, all ruthlessness and sociability and forbidding wealth. “Traps” is the more technically challenging of the two novels, weaving as it does among four characters, but Bezos doesn’t conjure any of these women with the vividness and nuance that she brought to Luther Albright.
It is hard, in encountering the fiction of MacKenzie Bezos, to untangle the work of a reader from the scrutiny of the voyeur; it is hard to know where literary criticism ends and rubbernecking begins. To scour Bezos’s work for hints about her life is to insult the freedom of her imagination.
But that error isn’t confined to book reviews of the rich and famous. The same reductive thinking happens in families, where we discount our loved ones’ inner worlds and where confirmation bias runs rampant. “The Testing of Luther Albright” is almost over when Luther is struck by “the sudden thought that Liz might not be there at all—might be pursuing her own secret life.” It is too easy, the novelist implies, to underestimate people.