In the opening scene of The Husband’s Secret, Liane Moriarty introduces Cecilia Fitzpatrick as “a school mum and part–time Tupperware consultant.” Happily married, mother of three, memories of her younger self stored in the attic in neatly labeled plastic containers, checking off tasks as she moves through the day. As readers we know that so much control and organisation constitutes hubris; it is rattling the cages of the gods of narration.
The gods, of course, oblige. Cecilia stumbles upon a sealed envelope with her husband’s handwriting. The envelope, it says, is only to be opened in the event of his death. But John-Paul is away, on a business trip. The discovery of the envelope acts as a catalyst. It is the first of many moral choices that the characters face as the novel unfolds, but I will not spoil your reading pleasure by revealing too much about the plot.
The novel covers seven days in Cecilia’s life: the week leading up to Easter. Every day is covered in a number of ‘chapters’ – short scenes really, that typically progress the action from the perspective of one of the main characters. Apart from Cecilia there is Tess, who runs a small business with her husband and her cousin in Melbourne; and Rachel, who is an office administrator at a primary school in Sydney.
As the action unfolds, Moriarty explores the tensions between order and chaos; between past and present; between the individual (using household containers) and the macro level (trying to contain a people behind the Berlin Wall). She emphasises the interconnectedness of things, the persistence of grief, the fracture lines that run through families.
Moriarty does a great job at weaving together her characters’ lives, at ending scenes on a cliff-hanger and at, occasionally, misdirecting readers. She is adept at rendering conversation and at depicting suburban life in modern Australia, though the community sketched in the novel is surprisingly monocultural.
In spite of these strengths there were a couple of passages that jarred. In chapter 32 the reader is told that “if only she could have emailed or texted him, that would have solved everything, but mobile phones and the internet were still in the future.” It is a clumsy and unnecessary intrusion by the narrator that disrupts the story world at a sensitive time. The second is the epilogue, which reads like a brainstorming session about alternative universes undertaken by an omniscient narrator. It is as bizarre as that sounds. It is rare to find a book where removing just two passages would add so much value and credibility (a gem for editor courses).
Moriarty is at her best when she explores ambiguity, grief and insecurity. There is more lightness in the first half of the novel; this ebbs away in the latter half, when the novel becomes slower and more predictable as it moves towards its climax.
The male characters (John-Paul, Connor, Will) are underdone, I feel, which hampers the novel. Some of their actions are of crucial importance to the plot, but lack credibility as they are not underpinned by credible motivation or character development.
The Husband’s Secret is a kaleidoscope of suburban life, but with a lethal twist. Moriarty’s characters are fallible people trying to be good. She provides a more explicit handle by citing Alexander Pope in the front matter of the book: “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” And Tupperware jars will never look the same again.
The Husband’s Secret was published by Pan Macmillan Australia in 2013. Find out more about Liane Moriarty’s work at www.lianemoriarty.com
With thanks to Romel for sharing Wolf Soul, a 2007 photo, under a Creative Commons licence.