I picked up The Husband’s Secret intending to read traditional chick lit — or, as I sometimes prefer to call it, “lit light.” The cover of the novel, the back cover, and the reputation of its author all implied to me that it would be a relatively simple story about women and the myriad complications in their lives. In anticipation of a 15 hour flight to Athens (via Chicago via Frankfurt) I didn’t want to deal with anything too difficult. The Husband’s Secret wasn’t too difficult — but it wasn’t traditional chick lit, either.
The back cover reads: Cecilia Fitzpatrick lives to be perfect: a perfect marriage, three perfect daughters, and a perfectly organized life. Then she finds a letter from her husband, John-Paul, to be opened only in the event of his death. She opens it anyway, and everything she believed is thrown into doubt. Meanwhile, Tess O’Leary’s husband, Will, and her cousin and best friend, Felicity, confess they’ve fallen in love, so Tess takes her young son, Liam, and goes to Sydney to live with her mother. There she meets up with an old boyfriend, Connor Whitby, while enrolling Liam in St. Angela’s Primary School, where Cecilia is the star mother. Rachel Crowley, the school secretary, believes that Connor, St. Angela’s PE teacher, is the man who, nearly three decades before, got away with murdering her daughter—a daughter for whom she is still grieving.
From the cover, I assumed that the women would feature predominately in one another’s lives — they do not, however. This is not a story about women lamenting their lives over coffee or wine, or a tale of different generations having their lives interweave. Their lives are connected, but in the manner of an Inarritu movie: indispensable, necessary, and impossibly tangled, but without the characters realizing it.
It is also not a story with a happy ending. There is no catharsis — none of the women resolves anything, and although the main plot thread is resolved: the question of who murdered Rachel’s daughter — the real questions never are. Can a marriage survive infidelity? What is the precise definition of infidelity? Should a spouse ignore wrongs committed before the marriage? Are there sins that cannot be forgiven? Does the truth set us free?
The novel ends with fitting dramatic irony — the author knows the true murderer, as not a single one of the characters does. Would the truth change anything? Not plotwise — but as far as the characters viewpoints, it would drastically alter the outcome. It’s a hard book to write about, and a hard book to recommend — the first half drags on a bit, whereas the second half is almost soap opera-y in its treatment of extramarital affairs, searches for vengeance, and burying of dark secrets. The ending, though, has that distinct glimmer of genius about it — easily one of the finest instances of dramatic irony in contemporary literature.