Book Review: The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
The Husband’s Secret is one tricky book. It lulls you into thinking that it’s some sort of chick-lit look at married life and motherhood, with its opening chapter introducing a powerhouse of a woman, Cecilia Fitzpatrick, who is perfect at just about everything: She’s president of the PTA of her kids’ Sydney private school, a Tupperware saleswoman par excellence (her not-always-the-swiftest husband doesn’t realize that she actually out-earns him at this point), has her daily routine down to a science, bakes, cleans, and is always just 100% on time, appropriate, and slightly better than everyone else — but never enough so that you’d hate her for it.
Then there’s Tess O’Leary, whose Melbourne-based life is about to implode after her husband and her first cousin/best friend/business partner confide to her — in oh-so-supportive tones — that they’ve fallen in love, but they’re sure the three of them can make it all work out for the best.
And poor, sad Rachel Crowley, the school secretary, harbors secret hatreds and sorrows stemming back 28 years — back to the day that her teen-age daughter Janie was murdered by an unknown assailant in a crime that remains unsolved.
These three women’s lives intersect and collide with unexpected and life-changing results in The Husband’s Secret — which I stopped thinking of as chick-lit and realized was just a terrifically well-written contemporary novel by the time I’d read 20 pages or so.
The ball really starts rolling when Cecilia stumbles across a letter from her husband, John-Paul, to be read after his death. The issue, though, is that John-Paul is still very much alive. Cecilia might have just left it alone, tucked away in the file with their wills, until she sees his extreme reaction to her mentioning that she found the letter. Knowing that he’s hiding something potentially explosive (is he gay? is he a child predator? does he have a mistress or second wife somewhere?), Cecilia rushes to open the letter… and what she reads is beyond anything she might have expected, a secret so shocking that their lives will never be the same. And then, of course, Cecilia must not only deal with new truths about the man she thought she knew, but must also decide what to do with this information — which impacts her family’s future, her daughters’ well-being, and the lives of others as well.
The secrets in this novel weigh heavily on the secret-keepers. Knowledge can be a burden, and the characters are in constant struggles to decide what’s right and what’s wrong. But what if what’s right for yourself might be completely wrong for your children? What if you share what you know, and even more lives are ruined? What good is the truth, if it doesn’t ease suffering but only leads to new and different suffering?
There are no easy answers. It seems simple, at first, to judge Cecilia and make assumptions about what she should do. I can’t say that I think she’s correct — but the author skillfully guides us through Cecilia’s thoughts and emotions, so we readers truly understand why her actions unfold as they do, whether we agree or disagree.
Tess’s story was a little less compelling for me, as it relates only tangentially to the other main storylines, and yet her dilemmas are real and potentially life-changing as well. Is it worse that her husband and cousin didn’t actually have an affair? They say they’re in love, but out of respect for Tess, haven’t allowed themselves to sleep together, and it’s the purity of it all that really drives Tess mad — if it had just been a sleazy little affair, perhaps it would be easier to get past. But what does it mean for Tess, all this silent longing and noble sacrifice, and can she reclaim her marriage, if not for herself, then for the sake of the family she and her husband have starting building with their son?
Throughout it all, the writing simply sparkles — and it’s the humor and wit of the writing, which shines through in a myriad of small but telling moments, that lulls you into thinking that this is a light, almost comedic domestic tale before the shocks, deep emotions, and tragic outcomes take over.
A few prime examples — one for each of the three main women:
(and for more, see this week’s Thursday Quotables post, where I share a few other favorite lines from this book):
Tess thought about how Will had once told her that he hated walking behind a woman late at night, in case she heard his footsteps and thought he was an ax murderer. “I always want to call out, ‘Its all right, I’m not an ax murderer!'” he said. “I’d run for my life if someone called that out to me,” Tess had told him. “See we can’t win,” said Will.
All these years there had been a Tupperware container of bad language sitting off to the side in her head, and now she’d opened it and all those crisp, crunchy words were lovely and fresh, ready to be used.
Lauren was the perfect daughter-in-law. Rachel was the perfect mother-in-law. All that perfection hiding all that dislike.
Reading The Husband’s Secret was one of those random odd reading experiences for me, where I went in with one set of expectations, only to realize I had it completely wrong. For whatever reason, I seemed to have remembered reading something about this book comparing it to Gone Girl, and never realized that I must have confused this with another book I’d picked up at about the same time. So, I started The Husband’s Secret expecting a dark, twisted novel full of psychological warfare and endless mindgames… and then, after reading about Tupperware, school projects, and Easter bonnets, started feeling like I was reading something suspiciously like “chick lit” — only to be startled as I went along by the depth of the characters, the seriousness and sadness underlying all the brisk, shiny writing, and the ultimate tragedy of the lives forever changed, for better or worse, by secrets kept and shared.
Australian author Liane Moriarty has crafted a real and honest look into the souls of three women with three very different lives. It’s impossible to read The Husband’s Secret without coming to care deeply about the characters. Agree or disagree with their decisions and actions, you’ll still wish these women well and feel both hope and sorrow for their experiences. I ended the book very satisfied with how the story wraps up, and yet wishing I could know more about the rest of these women’s lives. That, to me, is the sign of a successful novel: A plot that satisfies and engages throughout, wraps up without cliffhangers or loose ends, and leaves you wanting to stay in the characters’ company for just a bit longer.
I definitely recommend The Husband’s Secret… and look forward to reading more by this author.
Title: The Husband’s Secret
Author: Liane Moriarty
Publisher: Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam
Publication date: 2013
Length: 394 pages
Genre: Adult contemporary fiction