I’ve read a lot of books recently that haven’t really emotionally engaged me. I wanted to read something that was so compelling I would want to sit and devour it for hours on end, neglecting everything else. Basically, I wanted to read some good chick-lit (Ugh. It’s a demeaning term for novels written by women for women, but it’s an effective shortcut). Not the shoes ‘n’ cupcakes end of the spectrum, but the kind that has the strapline ‘A terrible thing has happened/An impossible choice has to be made … What would YOU do?’ You know the sort.
With this in mind, I raided the shelves of my local library for novels that had intriguing premises. (So expect a few of these reviews in the near future). The one I chose to read first was The husband’s secret by Liane Moriarty. It begins thus: married mother-of-three Cecilia Fitzpatrick, organised, capable and unflappable, finds an envelope in the attic, which has the instruction ‘For my wife, Cecilia Fitzpatrick. To be opened only in the event of my death’. She asks her husband about it. He tells her, with audible panic in his voice, that he can’t remember what it’s about, it’s probably nothing important, and under no circumstance should she open it and read the letter inside. Well, reader, what would YOU do?
Cecilia opens it, of course. And releases a Pandora’s box of trouble. The resulting events are told from the viewpoints of Cecilia and two other women: Tess, whose husband has just informed her that he is in love with her cousin, and 68-year-old Rachel, whose teenage daughter was murdered nearly thirty years ago. This caused me to pause momentarily when I started chapter 2, eager to find out what was going to happen to Cecilia, and found myself reading about Tess and her husband Will. I had to flick forward a couple of chapters to check that the narrative does return to Cecilia, and that the publishers hadn’t inadvertently bound in a chapter from a different book (it could happen…) Once I had reassured myself that no mistake had been made, I settled down to enjoy the story, and soon became absorbed.
Good characterisation is key to making a story like this work, and Moriarty is highly successful at this. She’s particularly good on the gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us. Cecilia, for example, thinks Tess is elegantly aloof and curses herself for monopolising the conversation and chattering on about inconsequential things, whereas the truth is that Tess is shy, and envies Cecilia’s ability to know exactly what to say in social situations. Rachel feels that she is acting like the ideal mother-in-law by not interfering with the way her daughter-in-law Laura runs her life. She later realises that Laura has been interpreting this lack of interference as lack of interest. Telling the story from various viewpoints enables us to see these gaps, and enjoy the resulting humour and dramatic irony. Take, for example, this passage, where Rachel has been expecting Laura to announce that she is pregnant again, but instead is told that Laura, Rachel’s son Ben, and their son Jacob, are moving to New York to further Laura’s career:
Why didn’t the damned girl want another baby? Didn’t they want to give Jacob a little brother or sister? What was so special about New York, with all those beeping horns and steam billowing oddly from holes in the street? For Pete’s sake, the girl went back to work three months after Jacob was born. It wasn’t like having a baby would be that big an inconvenience for her.
Another advantage of having different characters tell the story is that it prevents the reader from making strong judgements about their actions. We know why they are acting in certain ways, and although all three of the women do things that are arguably immoral (and in one case illegal), we feel sympathetic towards them. At the same time as this moral relativism, there is also a more rigid, religious, ethical strain running through the book: that redemption through suffering is possible, and that sins must be paid for, sometimes by the next generation. It’s to the credit of Moriarty that she manages to keep these two moral viewpoints running in tandem without either of them making the other look absurd.
So, in conclusion, in this book I did get what I was hoping for: a highly absorbing, emotionally compelling story that (cliché alert!) I couldn’t put down.