Title: How to Be a Good Wife
Author: Emma Chapman
No. of Pages: 288
Genre: Psychological Thriller
Origins: St. Martin’s Press
Release Date: 15 October 2013
Bottom Line: Brilliant psychological thriller from a fantastic debut author
“Marta and Hector have been married for a long time. Through the good and bad; through raising a son and sending him off to life after university. So long, in fact, that Marta finds it difficult to remember her life before Hector. He has always taken care of her, and she has always done everything she can to be a good wife—as advised by a dog-eared manual given to her by Hector’s aloof mother on their wedding day.
But now, something is changing. Small things seem off. A flash of movement in the corner of her eye, elapsed moments that she can’t recall. Visions of a blonde girl in the darkness that only Marta can see. Perhaps she is starting to remember—or perhaps her mind is playing tricks on her. As Marta’s visions persist and her reality grows more disjointed, it’s unclear if the danger lies in the world around her, or in Marta herself. The girl is growing more real every day, and she wants something.”
Thoughts: In an unknown village in an unknown Scandinavian country, Marta experiences the pressures of empty-nest syndrome and a future with nothing but caring for her house and her husband to fill up her time. In a fit of pique at the loss of her son and tired of Hector treating her like the fragile china dolls she loves, she opts to stop taking the very same medication she needs to keep her functional. As she starts remembering bits and pieces of her past and is visited by the blonde girl, she realizes that something is very wrong, that there is something in her past so horrific that she has repressed all of her memories of her childhood. Now, those memories want to resurface and threaten to disrupt the life she has carved for herself.
The key to How to Be a Good Wife is Marta’s narration and whether one believes her to be a reliable or an unreliable narrator. Good arguments can be made for either side of the debate, and the possibilities of both create a heightened tension to an already intense story. There is so much one does not know about Marta and Hector and so much that could be inferred, which is always subjective based on a reader’s own biases and experiences. In addition, there are so many questions, all of which have different answers depending on what one believes about Marta’s story. The unknown is always terrifying, and in this way, Ms. Chapman wrote a novel in which absolutely nothing is known – either by Marta, Hector, or the reader. It is up to the reader to weed through the clues and discern the truth as s/he sees it.
The vagueness of the novel should not scare away readers. In fact, the power of the novel lies in its vagueness and lack of distinct answers. Whether one chooses to believe she is mentally ill or repressing memories of a horrible trauma, the fact remains that Marta’s happily ever after seems to have been built on a façade, which is now decaying and crumbling in the absence of her son. Hector is not the wonderful, doting husband he first appears to be, and her mother-in-law is even worse. Problems abound regardless of their origins, and as Marta wends her way through the tricky maze of memory, these problems become glaringly clear. There is an awfulness to these problems that soothes the frustration felt at the lack of definitive answers.
Or are there solid answers? Just when a reader thinks s/he has the novel completely understood, Ms. Chapmen changes the dynamic of the story entirely. Readers feeling one way or the other will change their minds abruptly based on this new information, regenerating the debate in earnest. It is a brilliant sleight of hand and something readers will not see coming.
How to Be a Good Wife is a fascinating, superbly written study on perception. The is-she-or-isn’t-she elements of Marta’s visions lead readers down tricky paths that have no definitive answers while the surprising ending will have readers questioning everything previously experienced within the novel and then some. The nuanced characters and scenes belie the fact that this is a debut novel. Bound to leave one reeling with the possibilities, the buzz it is going to generate is well-deserved.