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I Didn't Care About the Husband's Secret
on 7 January 2015
Cecilia is a bland middle-aged housewife, a seller of Tupperware (didn't Tupperware parties go out of fashion in the 1980s) and 'super mum', basking in her prosperous suburban life with her handsome husband John-Paul and their three daughters, Isabel (a character never developed at all), bookish Ellen and 'startlingly beautiful' (and annoying) Polly. One day, when looking for a souvenir of her student trip to Europe for her daughter Ellen, she stumbles across a letter from her husband to her 'not to be opened until the event of my death'. Of course, she eventually opens it (believing that the letter includes a confession of infidelity) and of course, her perfect life collapses. Cecilia's story of increasing misery (which culminates in a self-consciously shocking finale) runs alongside the stories of Tess, a woman who seems to have all the men in the world at her feet (even though she allegedly suffers from Social Anxiety Disorder), who has returned to Sydney after her husband has decided he might be in love with her cousin and who falls for one of her previous boyfriends, and Rachel, an elderly woman still reeling from the death of her daughter Jane many years previously. Rachel believes she has - at last - found her daughter's murderer, but is she right?
There are some books that one reads and wonders why they've become so popular - and this is definitely one (apologies to fans of this author - this is just my personal opinion). There was virtually nothing I liked about the book. To begin with, the characters were for the most part very unpleasant. Cecilia was a parody of the good housewife, tut-tutting at her elder daughter for developing passionate intellectual interests while cherishing her younger (spoilt brat!) daughter for her physical beauty, smugly congratulating herself on her perfect home and organisation, patronising her friends and seemingly uninterested in everything outside her daily boring routine. Her reaction to her husband's secret was cold and selfish. Tess's behaviour towards Conor was also very selfish - she simply made use of him - and the whole to-ing and fro-ing between her, Will and Felicity got very silly and unbelievable. Rachel seemed to use her grief simply as an excuse to be as horrible as possible to everyone. The male characters were all horribly underdeveloped, and I didn't believe as a good Catholic that John-Paul could have kept his 'secret' - wouldn't it have put him in a permanent state of sin?
SPOILER ALERT - AVOID IF YOU DON'T LIKE SPOILERS: But then the 'secret' and the whole plot was unbelievable too. The way that Janie died seemed unbelievable - people don't usually put their hands round other people's throats when they're angry with them - they might shake them or even hit them, but squeezing a throat is usually only done with one intention! Janie's decision to sleep with Conor 'because John-Paul was too handsome' was also unbelievable - wouldn't any teenage girl go for the man she liked best, rather than be frightened that they were 'too good'? If John-Paul was such a good and honest man I think he'd have spoken about his problems earlier - and he wouldn't have been able to keep so calm about his 'secret' for so long. Rachel's sudden decision that Conor 'must' have killed Janie seemed unconvincing - and if she'd believed it for a long time, wouldn't she have attempted her dastardly deed earlier, bearing in mind that Conor had been in the neighbourhood for some time? Wouldn't a suspected murder victim have a detailed autopsy? I also didn't believe in Rachel's sudden switch from vengeful matriarch to cuddly granny - particularly after what she'd done. And the whole Tess story was just silly - if Tess was so 'Socially Anxious' how did she seduce Conor with such ease (and have so many boyfriends - very shy tense women don't tend to), and if Will adored her so much why hadn't they talked earlier about their problems? And if Will and Felicity weren't having an affair, why the big confession to Tess? Along with all these improbabilities there were acres of extreme blandness: endless details of coffee-mornings, of preparations for birthday parties and school fetes (the Easter hat scene, after Cecilia had confessed that John-Paul had broken her heart, was plain silly), lots of conversations about love that appeared to have been lifted from self-help books etc etc. I'd no idea why the author considered the Berlin Wall to be such a major topic in the book (ironically I bought the novel in a charity shop having read the after note, and assuming the 'secret' was something to do with the fall of communism in Germany - in fact, the only references to Berlin consist of Ellen's obsession with it, and long quotes about the fall of the Wall dropped randomly into the book). Comparing a domestic tragedy to the fall of a regime struck me as bad taste. The anti-intellectual attitude of all the characters was infuriating - Ellen was seen as 'weird' for pursuing a lot of interests, and no one else appeared to have any other than domestica and sex. And I found the ending self-consciously shocking and actually rather silly - a 'splatter gun' finale to bring the book to a dramatic close that actually seemed very improbable, accompanied by a lot of smug authorial gloating about 'of course, if this, this and this hadn't happened everyone would have been happy'. In addition, the writing is clunky, the sense of atmosphere almost nil and the conversations repetitive.
I'm sure I must be missing something about the book bearing in mind the acclaim it's had, but it didn't do anything for me at all. I won't be revisiting Moriarty's fiction.