Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Husband's Secret

The Husband's Secret
by Liane Moriarty
Published by Putnam Adult
416 pages
Genre: literature, women's literature
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview
5 / 5

This is one of those books that I needed to think about and sort of digest before I could write about it. It's that good.

Who amongst us doesn't worry about what secrets our loved ones will discover about us after we die? Perhaps a stray email or a photo that looks suspicious. Some of us even write letters to our families, letters they only can read after we die.

That is the premise for this strong, solid book: Cecile happens upon a letter written in her husband's handwriting, addressed to her, and stating that it is to be opened upon his death. Unfortunately, she finds it while he's still alive.

Cecile manages to put off opening the envelope; those of you in need of a speedy resolution need to reconnect with your patience, because we do not learn the contents of that envelope until about 200 pages in. By that point, we know Cecile, dynamo stay-at-home mom and Tupperware saleswoman. She's the sort who makes and freezes two lasagnes, returns umpteen emails, and schedules appointments all before her husband and children wake up. That she does it with a smile and aplomb makes her even more enviable. But we like her, if only because she admits that she occasionally parents better when there is an audience.

We also have gotten to know Tess, who runs an advertising agency with her husband Will and cousin Felicity. Tess and her cousin have been best friends since they exited their wombs, although Tess wonders how much of that friendship was a boost to her own ego because Felicity was morbidly obese until about six months ago. She lost a lot of weight, became gorgeous, and Tess is happy for her. Happy, that is, until Will and Felicity announce they are in love.

Then there is Rachel, a seventy-year-old school office worker who continues to struggle, over thirty years later, with the unsolved murder of her daughter. Rachel revels in her grandson, whom she can dote on and adore. But then her son announces that his wife has accepted a job in New York, halfway across the world from their home in Sydney, Australia, and Rachel plummets into sadness.

The three women's stories overlap, and we slowly become aware of how. There is a mystery here - who killed Rachel's daughter - and its solution unleashes catastrophic consequences. Moriarty frames her story with that of Pandora, asking if Pandora was all that smart in opening up the box. That becomes one of the central questions: are we better off knowing each other's secrets, or is ignorance truly bliss?

Just as gripping as the mystery is the sense of pending doom for Cecile, Tess, and Rachel. Moriarty tends to this mood of suspenseful despair by taking us fully into the minds of her characters. We know Cecile's desperation to understand her husband. We grieve with Rachel. We feel anger and frustration with Tess. As they maneuver their ways through these few weeks of their lives, their search for contentment becomes important for us as well. Therein lies Moriarty's success as a writer: she makes us care.

While the Pandora allusion works, there are two other metaphors at play that are more intriguing. Cecile's daughter is obsessed with the Berlin Wall, and as she learns more about it, she is surprised to discover that some East and West Germans were nonplussed with the wall's destruction; they were comfortable with it, and the freedoms its removal ushered in discomfited them. We understand this, especially as Cecile confronts the letter.

Perhaps the more intriguing metaphor, however, is Cecile's job. It is no accident that she sells containers. Cecile's life is all about containment and storage, with each piece knowing its spot. Oldest daughter Isabel's burgeoning womanhood disturb's Cecile because it does not fit; she needs to create a new container for this part of parenting. When she learns what her husband wanted her to know only after his death, she must confront the dismantling of all of her storage bins. They burst open and force her to reorganize her carefully arranged life.

You will find yourself asking several "what ifs" as you read this book. What would you do? How would you react?

You also will find yourself wondering what your family will discover about you when you die.

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