“Twenty years ago, Dennis Danson was arrested and imprisoned for the brutal murder of a young girl. Now he’s the subject of a true-crime documentary that’s whipping up a frenzy online to uncover the truth and free a man who has been wrongly convicted.
A thousand miles away in England, Samantha is obsessed with Dennis’s case. She exchanges letters with him, and is quickly won over by his apparent charm and kindness to her. Soon she has left her old life behind to marry him and campaign for his release.
When the campaign is successful and Dennis is freed, however, Sam begins to discover new details that suggest he may not be quite so innocent after all.
But how do you confront your husband when you don’t want to know the truth?”
My Thoughts: Friends, you know I try to be judicial in my reviews, fair and polite but honest. I always try to make sure that you understand why I personally found certain elements of a novel problematic because reading is such a personal experience. Yet, every once in a while, a novel comes around where to be fair or polite is a more difficult task than normal, and the time and energy I want to spend on reviewing such a novel means a lack of politeness on my part. Sometimes, a novel is so disappointing and so bad from a cultural perspective that it does not deserve fairness. Also, typically these types of novels require spoilers in order to prove a point, so consider this your warning, my friends. I hereby declare I may be sharing spoilers and therefore absolve myself of any hurt feelings or disappointed readers who hope to read the novel and do not want to know what happens in advance. Also, I threw fairness out the window upon finishing this train wreck of a novel.
To list just one area where The Innocent Wife goes wrong is like asking a bibliophile to name their favorite book of all time. There are so many areas where the novel fails as a story that it becomes an effort in futility to select just one. The story is predictable. The characters are insipid, flat, and thoroughly uninteresting. The premise is slightly appalling. What’s worse, even though it has a “ripped from the headlines” aspect to it, the story is culturally blind. The whole thing proves to be one big disappointment, made even larger by the fact that you keep hoping it is going to get better. Spoiler alert – it does not.
The plot twists within the novel are not twists at all. Careful readers will identify certain plot twists well in advance. Normally, within good suspense stories, writers offset such easily anticipated twists by veering in an opposite, previously unsuspected direction with the story. Such is not the case with The Innocent Wife. Because it has the potential to be a great novel, you hope that Ms. Lloyd is going to take the story into a completely different direction at the plot twist point. Time and time again though, she fails to do so but instead continues to plod along a highly predictable and, frankly, boring path. Everything from Dennis’ release to the problems in their marriage to the supposedly shocking ending unfolds exactly how you think it will. This makes for a highly inadequate suspense story.
As for the characters, they are not much better. Samantha is one step above a caricature, while Dennis remains one. The supporting cast is small but equally predictable and undeveloped. There is the quirky but lovable sidekick, if you will, who helps Samantha adjust to life in the United States, smooths the initial rough patches in their marriage, and provides a comforting shoulder when Dennis’ release proves to be less romantic and more cringe-worthy than anticipated. That she is loud and proud and in a committed same-sex relationship feels like a tacky add-on to help make the story more culturally diverse. Then we have the high school ex-girlfriend who initially shows up on the periphery as a minor figure but ends up playing a much larger role in Dennis’ life than anyone previously predicted – well, everyone except the reader, who can guess her involvement in his life within the first introduction. She is the poor, white trash ex-girlfriend to Samantha’s supposedly more polished character. None of the characters are sympathetic, and there is not much done to try to get you to empathize with them. The whole thing stinks of a check-the-box exercise.
Then there is the plot itself. Putting aside the idea of a documentary helping a convicted prisoner prove his innocence (cough…”Making a Murderer”…cough), in this day and age it is unfathomable to me that someone would drop her entire life without notice to anyone, including her mother, to move to a different country and get married to a relative stranger. It does not matter how many letters they exchanged and what secrets they supposedly spilled in those letters, the idea is ridiculous bordering on insane. It would be one thing if Dennis were allowed conjugal visits so that they could at least get some private time together, but Dennis is not allowed them. Instead, we are expected to believe that Samantha and Dennis are deeply in love based solely on letters and conversations held through Plexi-glass. Um…no. Now, I understand that prisoners get groupies, and that some people do fall in love and get married while one of the couple is in jail, except my understanding of those scenarios is that the relationship takes years to develop. These are not love-at-first-sight situations. Yet, Ms. Lloyd essentially makes Samantha and Dennis a love-at-first-sight couple. Their letter-exchanging occurs over a few weeks, let along months, and it is not even a year after the first letter before she literally walks out of her old life and onto U.S. soil for the first time ever. It is so ridiculous that it makes soap opera plots look realistic.
Finally, we get on to my biggest issue with the novel. Given the #metoo movement, greater awareness of body positivity and mental health, an increase in feminist leanings in novels, and a greater cultural awareness about men of color and the judicial system, The Innocent Wife is a slap in the face to all of that. Samantha is a damaged person. She hints at a violent situation with her ex-boyfriend and frequently refers to her inadequacies and jealousies that cause her to spiral out of control. She recognizes her behavior and attitude as damaging to herself and to others but does nothing about it. Moreover, she references her weight, her acne-laden face, and her general laziness all the time, especially in light of Dennis’ health consciousness and general gorgeousness. This is no ugly duckling story; Samantha is set up to be Dennis’ opposite in every way if only to make it easier for Dennis to manipulate her into doing what he wants. After all, a girl like her doesn’t deserve a guy like him. The whole thing sets off every alarm in my body for why Samantha is not a good character. What makes it worse is that I believe Ms. Lloyd intends for Samantha to be relatable, to be an every girl who eventually ends up winning the game in the end. This would be fine if she were relatable and the game worth winning. She is not relatable, and this is not a game anyone wants to win.
Just when you think it can’t get any worse, we get Dennis mocking the #blacklivesmatter movement and practically defending white privilege as he learns how to communicate on social media. It would be one thing if Ms. Lloyd through Samantha then took the time to explain what the #blacklivesmatter movement means and why it exists, but she doesn’t. Instead, we get several pages of Samantha telling Dennis he can’t say stuff like that and to let it go and then explaining to others how she tried to stop him but couldn’t get him to see reason. We never get an history of the movement or reasons why Dennis should be more careful in online discussions. The Innocent Wife attempts to be culturally aware with its inclusion of Twitter and Instagram, with its mention of the #blacklivesmatter movement and discussions of white privilege. It even tries to be media savvy with a wink and a nod to the popular documentary “Making a Murderer” in its very plot. It fails on all accounts, and it fails rather spectacularly.
For all intents, The Innocent Wife should have been a good story. The basic structure for a compelling thriller exists. Undeveloped characters and a thorough lack of imagination when it comes to plot make it boring. The lack of cultural awareness even though it tries so hard to be culturally relevant makes it infuriating. If you want a story about marriage and the prison system, stick with An American Marriage. You will be much happier and will learn more than anything within the pages of The Innocent Wife.