Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Husband's Secret, by Liane Moriarty

What would you do if you found a letter addressed to you with a note stating it is to be opened in the event of your husband's death? Would you open it, put it back where you found it, ask your husband about it? That is the dilemma facing Cecilia Fitzpatrick, multi-tasking mother of three, Tupperware saleswoman, and stalwart organizer and fundraiser of St. Angela's School in Sydney, Australia. When she mentions the letter to her husband John-Paul and he not only responds suspiciously but returns home from an international business trip days early, her resolve not to read the letter dissolves. The secret she learns throws her perfect life into emotional chaos.

But Cecilia's is not the only story told in The Husband's Secret. Tess O'Leary, a 30-something Melbourne resident, learns that her husband has a secret, too--he is in love with her cousin, best friend, and business partner Felicity. Tess reacts by taking her six-year-old son to stay with her mother in Sydney, where she enrolls him at St. Angela's School. There, she runs into the PE teacher Connor Whitby, whom she dated before she married Will, and begins to eye him with some interest.

Connor is also the focus of Rachel Crowley's attention. Rachel is the school secretary at St. Angela's, and she believes Connor murdered her daughter a quarter of a century ago. Her grief still feels fresh, and she tortures herself by thinking about the possible lives her daughter might have had had she not been killed. Rachel believes she has discovered new evidence of his guilt and is eagerly awaiting police action. Her grief is compounded by the fact that her daughter-in-law has gotten a job in New York, which will take her beloved grandchild away.

While Moriarty infuses humor into the story, she also builds a growing sense of dread. And, while the reader knows definitively that John-Paul's secret will be bad and, upon its revelation, something else terrible will happen, Moriarty still manages to surprise us with the twists the story takes. Cecilia and Rachel's stories in particular cause the reader to ponder the power of secrets, the nature of guilt, and the meaning of justice.

The book is not without problems. Occasionally, Moriarty's prose lapses into cliche, and her Berlin Wall metaphor is clunky. Tess's story is much lighter than those of Cecilia and Rachel--perhaps introducing a lighter tone is its purpose or perhaps it is intended to extend our thinking about secrets or our insight into the suspected murderer, Connor Whitby. Whatever its purpose, it felt out of place to me. The book also has an Epilogue that I found really irritating--it engages in something similar to Rachel's habit of imagining her daughter's adult life and tells the reader how things would have turned out if various events in the book hadn't occurred (and drops a couple more surprises on the reader). Again, I"m sure Moriarty is conveying a point about the multiple futures possible for everyone and the extent to which our lives are shaped by events we don't fully understand--but as a device, I disliked it.

These problems notwithstanding, I found myself listening to the book much more often than my normal "listening while walking" practice. It's definitely worth reading.

Favorite passage:
Marriage was a form of insanity, love hovering permanently on the edge of aggravation.

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