The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty
Jan 6, 2014
Even though I loved What Alice Forgot, also by Liane Moriarty, I probably would not have picked up The Husband's Secret if not for my book club. The premise sounded intriguing enough (a wife accidentally finds a letter from her husband, which she is instructed only to open in the case of his death), but it also sounded like there was plenty of room for some edgy content (plus, I already knew from What Alice Forgot to expect a fair bit of language).
However, based on my experience with What Alice Forgot, I also knew the novel couldn't possibly be as shallow as a husband simply confessing to an affair. And I was right on that point: it was unexpected and multi-layered and thought-provoking. Unfortunately, I was also right about the language and the mature content.
Cecilia Fitzpatrick leads a charmed life: she is married to a loving, successful husband, she has three beautiful daughters, she runs a thriving business, and she is an irreplaceable member of her community. When the story begins, Cecilia has just found the tantalizing envelope. It was in a box of old receipts she accidentally knocked over. It looks like it was written at least a decade before. Part of her feels like she shouldn't open it (John-Paul isn't dead after all . . . ), but another part of her is desperate to know what he will only confess after he's gone.
Meanwhile, in another city, Tess is finding out that her husband and her best friend/cousin are having an affair (I can't say I was totally shocked to find out there was an affair somewhere in the book, even if it wasn't what I originally expected). Tess isn't about to give up on her marriage, but she also needs some time to think, so she boards a plane with her six-year-old son and heads to her mom's house in Sydney (the same suburb where, as fate would have it, Cecilia Fitzpatrick lives).
Finally, there's Rachel, an older woman in her late sixties who cannot come to terms with her daughter's tragic death over twenty years before. She is the secretary at St. Angela's, the Catholic school where the Fitzpatrick girls and Tess's son are enrolled.
The entire story takes place over just seven days. The perspective shifts between Cecilia, Tess, and Rachel. As things progress, their interactions with each other become more frequent, and their lives become mixed together in unforeseen ways.
While I really loved the characters and the development of this story, I was really in a bind because there was a lot of content that made me quite uncomfortable (especially in Tess's sections--her reaction to her husband's infidelity was to be unfaithful herself). I spent almost the entire book questioning whether I should just stop reading and let my book club fill me in on the details.
Unfortunately, I have never been one to want to read wikipedia summaries or CliffsNotes. So much of the story's impact (for me) is dependent on the writing and the pacing and not reducing a 400-page book to four paragraphs.
But what really made me keep reading was that when I wasn't reading it, I couldn't stop thinking about it (and not just because I wanted to know what was going to happen next). I was thinking about what I would do if I was in Cecilia's place. I was thinking about second chances and forgiveness and healing and guilt. Often when I'm struggling to know whether or not I should put down a book, I ask myself, "Is there value in this book? Am I becoming a better person for reading it?" Every time I asked myself that while reading this book, I had to answer yes. It wasn't shallow or gratuitous. There was real depth and meaning behind all those flawed and troubled characters.
One of the main themes of the book is guilt; or rather, the pain that so often comes from rash decisions and whether or not it's possible to ever make up for past mistakes. I've thought a lot about this paragraph: "He was always calculating, wondering what else God would expect of him, how much more he would have to pay. Of course, he knew that none of it was enough . . . "
But I've thought even more about this line: "Did one act define who you were forever? Did one evil act as a teenager counteract twenty years of marriage, of good marriage, twenty years of being a good husband and a good father?" This question is agonizing for me. I keep thinking about a movie I saw last year about Dr. Ben Carson, the first surgeon to successfully separate conjoined twins at the head. I've been meaning to read his autobiography, but in the movie, it depicts a scene with him as a rebellious, stubborn teenager with a quick temper. He gets into a fight with a group of guys and tries to stab one of them with his knife. Fortunately, the boy's belt buckle stops the knife, and Ben realizes with horror what he almost did. I have often thought how tragic it would have been if his fit of rage had led to murder. One senseless act would have cut off a life destined for amazing good and discovery.
I thought of that scene again while reading this book. Over and over in this story, it is a senseless act, a split-second decision, that alters the course of the various characters' lives. It seems unfair that such choices should be allowed such deep impacts. And yet, if the choice hurts another person, then there is no way that the perpetrator shouldn't have to suffer for his mistakes.
Am I being vague enough? I'm trying not to give anything away, but perhaps I should have just given a spoiler-alert heads-up and written freely. The point is, our decisions really do define who we are and who we become. But it really is tragic that it's possible for two different people to make the same kind of decision but have very different outcomes.
As with What Alice Forgot, I was captivated by Liane Moriarty's writing. Her pacing is amazing. She knows just how to give you the barest of details without leaving you totally confused and frustrated. She knows just when to deliver the punch for the greatest impact (Cecilia finally tears open the letter midway through the book, and the scene is perfectly placed--plenty of lead-up but also lots of time left to struggle through some resolutions). I also love the interplay between dialogue and the character's thoughts. For example, this scene, where Rachel is at a party and hears two women talking: "'It's unacceptable,' said Eve. 'In this day and age. I refuse it. I say no thank you to pain.' Ah, so that was my mistake, thought Rachel. I should have said no thank you to pain." Eve is talking about childbirth, but Rachel hears that and thinks about her daughter's death. I really feel like Liane Moriarty has a tight hold on who her characters are. She knows them, not just superficially, but deep down inside.
The ending is . . . unexpected. I honestly didn't know if Moriarty would be able to pull off a satisfying conclusion. But while not exactly happy (and I was disappointed to not find out what happened with Rachel's son and family), I think it was probably the best way it could have ended.
Because of the content, this isn't a book I can universally recommend. But if you don't mind the condensed version, I'd love to fill you in on the plot so we can discuss it.