Following my enjoyment of the TV adaptation of Big Little Lies, I decided to read The Husband’s Secret, a book that has been gathering dust on my Kindle for quite a while now.
I loved the television show Big Little Lies, mainly because it was so focused on the female perspective and dealt in a dramatic and emotional way with marriage, relationships, domestic violence, rape and a host of other issues. Accusations that is was pulpy, or trashy only made me defend it more, so I hoped I would feel the same way about The Husband’s Secret.
There are some similarities between both stories. Set in and around St Angela’s Catholic Primary School in Sydney, the book focuses on several women, all trying to have a fulfilled and fulfilling life for themselves and their families, all the while carrying their own secrets. The idea of the fragility of the façade of the perfect life and the way in which the past has a tendency to resurface are played out against a backdrop of normal everyday lives.
The Husband’s Secret is a hard book to review without spoilers, but I’m going to try and do so. To be fair, the central ‘twist’ – the facts of the husband’s secret – is not too hard to figure out, but it is the core of the book, so I don’t want to give anything away for anyone planning to read it.
The novel centres on three women. Cecilia is a stay-at-home Mum to her three beautiful daughters and creates an ordered, perfect life for them and her handsome husband John Paul. Head of St Angela’s PTA and a highly successful Tupperware salesperson, she thrives on organisation, surface appearance and order. Her seemingly perfect life belies crippling self-doubt and she is concerned about the fact that she and John Paul are not sleeping together anymore. The lack of sex is not for any reason she can imagine and it is his secret that is about to blow her life apart.
Tess has just discovered that her husband has been cheating on her with her cousin and has fled the situation to stay with her mother and enrol her son in St Angela’s school. Smarting from the betrayal, she starts an affair with an old school boyfriend as she comes to terms with what has happened.
Rachel is the school secretary whose daughter was killed over twenty years ago and whose murderer has never been caught. On hearing the news that her son, wife and beloved grandson are to move to New York, Rachel becomes obsessed with what she has lost and becomes driven by the belief that she knows who killed her daughter.
When Cecilia discovers a letter, written by her husband several years before and marked to be opened upon the event of his death, it starts a chain of events that will affect all these women’s lives and bring them together in ways they could never have imagined.
A lot of interesting themes are at play here. Guilt, self-worth, grief and fulfilment. Some storylines play out more successfully than others. The plight of Rachel, forever imagining what might have been for her lost daughter, is heart-breaking and sensitively approached, but there is a strange tone to The Husband’s Secret that I just couldn’t reconcile with the subject matter.
While the characters, although very obvious types, are well-fleshed out and believable, often their actions and motivations aren’t. If Tess is so distraught at her husband’s infidelity, why does she begin an affair only a matter of days later? Emotional reactions appear to serve plot more than character and while that is not always a bad thing, it makes some of the decisions made seem completely unbelievable.
The tone of the book is one of flippancy and amusement and at times I found it very distracting. There is some incredibly serious subject matter here and while I don’t say that the tone has to be sombre all the time, the jokey nature of the writing at times seemed incongruous. Cecilia’s reaction to her husband’s secret – which is a pretty big, pretty damn serious secret – is bemusing. What she finds out changes her entire life and affects that of her daughters, yet the jokes continue to come thick and fast. She mulls over what she should do, when in reality, she would not have a choice.
Yesterday she’d thrown up in the gutter and cried in the pantry, but this morning she’d got up at six am and made two lasagnes to go into the freezer ready for Easter Sunday, and ironed a basket of clothes and sent three emails enquiring about tennis lessons for Polly and answered fourteen emails about various school maters, and put in her Tupperware order from the party the other night, and got a load of laundry on the line, all before John-Paul and the girls were out of bed. She was back on her skates, twirling expertly about the slippery surface of her life
The book seems to be asking questions about guilt and punishment. How do we recognise bad behaviour on any number of levels – from self-indulgence to adultery, rudeness to murder – and how should that behaviour be fittingly punished? Is a lifetime of guilt a justifiable penance for a crime, or is an admission of wrong-doing a mercy in itself? For me however, the answers Moriarty gives seem a little trite.
Moriarty appears to have a great insight into the minds of self-indulgent, depressed middle-aged characters. The dialogue and dynamics between them are snappy and entertaining and the internal monologues particularly capture the random thoughts and feelings we have about others but would never say out loud.
The Husband’s Secret is an easy read. It barrels along in an entertaining fashion and I read it in a day or two. From looking at reviews and reaction on Goodreads, I know I am in the minority by not particularly liking it. Once the titular secret was revealed, the book started to lose me but it was the ill-conceived Epilogue that I found particularly maddening. Why would you create a series of ‘what ifs’ that make the main plot twist of the book a complete irrelevance? Those last few pages dissipated any good will I had towards The Husband’s Secret and that is a shame.
The Husband’s Secret has been, inevitably, optioned for adaptation and I can imagine it will work, if done in the same vein as Big Little Lies. As a novel though, I found it disappointing.
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