I was intrigued by the premise, a wife finding a letter from her husband intended to be opened only after his death, because my husband has a letter like that in his desk drawer. My husband wrote it after a serious health scare, when he was contemplating the fragility of life. I’m reasonably certain there is no secret in my husband’s letter like the one in the book. I’ve never been more than mildly tempted to read my husband’s letter, but then again, I’m not Cecelia, the book’s main character. Cecelia seems to have many good reasons to be suspicious of the contents of this letter, including, or especially, her husband’s odd reaction when she tells him of finding it.
Cecelia is an extraordinarily capable and organized wife, mother, school volunteer, and 11th top-selling Tupperware representative in Australia. I would find her intimidating if I knew her, but we find that she is not at all perfect. Cecelia is herself intimidated by one of the women in the story who would have been very surprised to know that. As Cecelia’s story plays out, she begins to lose control of her impeccably organized routine. She even (gasp!) starts swearing, which leads to one of the best quotes I’ve read in a long time: “All these years there had been a Tupperware container of bad language in her head, and now she opened it and all those crisp, crunchy words were fresh and lovely, ready to be used.”
There was another quote about Cecelia in the book that resonated with me: “She was a far better mother when she had an audience.” In the book, Cecelia is just not up to answering her daughters’ questions about the Berlin Wall so she redirects their conversation to trashy reality television show, knowing that if her husband had been present, she would not have done so. Is there any mom who can’t relate to this? Whether she’s deflecting questions about history, religion, or sex, every unsupervised mother has changed the subject in effort to stave off an impending headache. What mother hasn’t also poured bowls of cereal for dinner rather than cook a meal, or suggested watching a movie rather than play Candy Land again, or allowed an extra half hour of television instead of a bath at bedtime when no other adult eyes were watching? I’ve done all of these things, like Cecelia, when my husband wasn’t around. But, while I strongly identified with the sentiment in the quote, I have nevertheless always felt that I did have an important audience for my parenting – my kids themselves!
Along with Cecelia, there are two other main female characters, Tess and Rachel. Their intersecting stories revolve around a neighborhood school in Sydney Australia called St. Angela’s.
Tess is a painfully shy woman with an unnaturally close (probably co-dependent) relationship with her cousin, the beautiful Felicity. After her husband and cousin painfully and awkwardly admit to Tess that they have fallen in love under her nose, Tess escapes with her son to Sydney to stay with her mother. Tess immediately begins an affair with an old boyfriend, Connor, who is now a PE teacher at St. Angela’s. This affair does wonders for Tess’ self confidence, making her feel attractive, desired, sexy, even little bit mysterious and dangerous, but it does not demonstrate her to be a very nice person. By contrast, her husband admits his affair to Tess before it became physical (although his insistence on pointing that out is not particularly flattering to either Tess or Felicity). But Tess has no such hesitation about her affair – she revels in the sex. Good for her! But I felt sorry for poor Connor. Tess barely remembers dating him, while he not only remembers her, but still carries a torch for her. Tess took advantage of him. Later, Tess realizes how much she relied on Felicity, to the point of using Felicity as a crutch, to help her manage her social anxiety. In that sense, she took advantage of her cousin too.
Tess is not a likable character, but I really connected with the angst she felt over her relationship with her husband. It was Tess who observed, “It seemed to her everyone had too much self-protective pride to truly strip down to their souls in front of their long-term partners. It was easier to pretend there was nothing more to know, to fall into an easygoing companionship. It was almost embarrassing to be truly intimate with your spouse; how could you watch someone floss one minute, and the next minute share your deepest passion or most ridiculous, trite little fears? It was almost easier to talk about that sort of thing before you’d shared a bathroom and a bank account and argued over the packing of the dishwasher.”
Tess could have been talking directly to me. It is a painful truth that the physical intimacy of space and time that you share with your husband can stand in the way of genuine emotional closeness. You’ve known each other so long and so well that there have established deep paths in your respective psyche so that is impossible to share your deepest thoughts or hear them if he shares his with you. Tess mentions “self-protective pride” – singles and newlyweds probably can’t fathom how true that description is. Part of the reason you wear down the paths in the first place is because you learn where not to step.
The third major character is Rachel, a widow haunted by the unsolved murder of her teenaged daughter, Janie. She is a school secretary at St. Angela’s. Rachel’s one worldly joy is her toddler grandson, who is about to be taken away from her when her son and daughter-in-law move to the States for a job. The loss of her daughter has made Rachel an angry, bitter woman. She has an uncomfortable relationship with her adult son and a cold relationship with her daughter-in-law, Lauren. Except for her grandson, Rachel seems to have no joy in her life at all.
Working at St. Angela’s unfortunately puts her in proximity of the man she suspects of murdering her daughter: Conner, the sexy PE teacher. This suspicion takes up a significant amount of her attention, except when she is deliberately unkind to her daughter-in-law. For example, when Lauren brings Rachel a fancy box of macarons, Rachel goes to great lengths not to let Lauren know how much she likes them, to the point of asking someone else, rather than Lauren, to find some more for her. As the book describes, Rachel is not the kind of mother-in-law you would want to have: “She always pretended to herself that she didn’t let Lauren help because she was trying to be the perfect mother-in-law, but really, when you didn’t let a women help, it was a way of keeping her at distance, of letting her know that she wasn’t family, of saying I don’t like you enough to let you into my kitchen.” Like so many of the quotes from this book, this one is stone cold and completely true.
Ultimately, it is Rachel’s conviction that Conner is her daughter’s murderer that drives the finale of the book. No spoilers here, but you can be assured that everyone learns a lesion, not least of all Rachel, who finally realizes that the bitterness she holds against her daughter-in-law is rooted in the fact that her daughter-in-law is alive, and her daughter isn’t. The book’s most touching moment comes when a newly self-aware Rachel drops her coldness toward Lauren and asks if she has anymore of those macarons, “Like the ones you brought for me on Monday night? They were divine. Absolutely divine.”
Ostensibly, the book is murder mystery, but I found the author’s pointed observations about relationships to be what stuck with me after finishing the book. Cecelia, Tess, and Rachel were realistic flawed characters, with problems I could identify with, even when I didn’t approve of the actions they chose.
Unfortunately, the book is also populated with an assortment of other interchangeable female characters with similar names and no apparent relevance the story. It is unnecessarily distracting and confusing to have assorted friends, coworkers, other mothers, and other children named and described if they have no significant role in the story. This is particularly frustrating when the third person narrative moves from one character’s story to another and the reader must look to cues to establish story progression in each scene change. I had difficulty keeping various extra characters straight. Also, I don’t know why it was necessary to spend so much time on the school principal’s quirky behaviors (are we supposed to conclude she probably had undiagnosed ADHD?) when she had nothing to contribute to the story.
Janie, the murdered girl, had some flashback scenes of her own, but there were other characters who also should have had more substance. I would have liked to have known more about Cecelia’s mother-in-law. How did she handle her son’s secret? There was one chilling scene between Cecelia and her husband’s mother that left me wondering about the story from her point of view and wondering how much influence she might have had on her son.
All we know about Tess’s cousin Felicity is from Tess’s internal musings about her. By the end of the book Tess realizes how much she relied on Felicity and how much she stunted herself doing this. But what about Felicity? Didn’t this hurt Felicity too? By the time actual Felicity, instead of remembered Felicity, appears in the story, she seems like more of a caricature than a real person.
Finally, there was the Pandora thing. There is a prologue to the book that recaps the story of Pandora and her box. Pandora was told not to open her box, but she did anyway. I think it was supposed to connect with Cecelia’s opening the husband’s letter. To be honest, I didn’t read the prologue until after I read the epilogue. I glanced at the prologue when I picked up the book, noticed that it appeared to be about Pandora, and skipped it. A prologue is frequently an author indulgence. I always skip prologues if they appear to be unrelated to the story because as a reader, I’m impatient to get into the story. #sorrynotsorry
The epilogue was generally a “what if” section about things that might have happened differently with the characters. I felt like that really undermined the story I just read and didn’t fit well with the Pandora metaphor either. I could have done without the Pandora prologue and the epilogue, especially the last sentence: “None of us ever know all the possible courses our lives could have and maybe should have taken. It’s probably just as well. Some secrets are meant to stay secret forever. Just ask Pandora.” Ask Pandora what? I think her box had evils in it, not secrets. Or maybe there is an alternate Australian version of the Pandora myth?
The one saving grace of the epilogue was the surprising reveal of what really happened to Janie, the murdered girl. It was a great twist with just enough foreshadowing to make it really effective – I just wish the author could have presented it without the Pandora baggage.
Over all, I enjoyed the book. The reader will easily figure out what the husband’s secret is well before it is revealed, but there is some suspense before the mystery is fully solved. The twist ending was worthwhile, even if it was unsuccessfully hung with some Greek mythology. What I liked best and will stick with me for a long time were the three main characters who were given significant depth by the author’s excellent pithy observations and descriptions. I plan to read more by this author.
I give it 3.5 Tupperware containers out of 5.
Book: The Husband’s Secret
Author: Liane Moriarty
Publication date: July 30, 2013