The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
Penguin Books UK 2013
In Sydney’s North Shore, Cecilia Fitzpatrick is well pleased with her life. Her husband, John-Paul, is still a catch and a lovely father to their three young daughters: Isobel, Esther and Polly. She’s president of the parent committee for St Angelus primary school, which her kids attend just like she and her husband did decades ago; her house is beautifully and obsessively organised; she is one of the most successful Tupperware ladies in Australia – making more money than her husband realises – and she’s involved in pretty much everything.
But Cecilia’s cosy little world comes to a crashing halt when she learns her husband’s secret. Finding an old letter in the attic, addressed to her in the event of John-Paul’s death, it isn’t until she realises just how desperate John-Paul is to get it back and destroy it that she opens it. What she learns can’t be unlearned: it’s big, it’s horrible, it changes everything. What is she to do with this new knowledge? Already it’s eating her up inside, but letting the truth out will have equally tragic consequences for her three small girls.
In Melbourne, Tess also is content with her life: she has a wonderful husband, Will, and an even more wonderful six year old, Liam. She runs a successful advertising business with Will, a marketer, and her cousin Felicity, a graphic designer, out of their house. Everything comes to an end when she learns her husband’s seedy little secret: he and Felicity have fallen in love. They tell Tess about it early one evening, after she’s talked to her mother in Sydney who’s just broken her ankle, and in her fury and sense of betrayal she immediately gets on a plane with Liam to stay with her mum, Lucy O’Leary. Lucy, who separated from Tess’s father when Tess was ten, is supportive and understanding, and encourages Tess to enrol Liam in the local Catholic school, St Angelus, so he doesn’t miss out. At St Angelus, Tess is re-introduced to Connor Whitby, an ex-boyfriend from university who now works as the PE teacher. Also at the school is Rachel Crowley, the secretary and all-round office lady.
Rachel Crowley, now in her sixties, has spent decades mourning the death of her eldest child, Janie, in 1984, while almost entirely ignoring her younger child, Rob. Now a real estate agent, Rob announces that he is moving to New York City because his wife, Lauren, who works in banking, has a new job there for the next two years. It’s not the loss of Rob that upsets Rachel, though, but the loss of Jacob, their toddler and her only grandchild, whom she cares for two days a week and who makes her feel alive as she hasn’t felt since the day Janie died. What makes Janie’s death so hard to live with even after all these years is the fact that she was murdered, and the case hasn’t been closed: they never found who did it. Rachel has always been sure that Connor, the last person to see Janie alive, is guilty, and an old VCR tape she suddenly discovers makes her think she’s finally found proof. Eagerly, she passes it over to the police and waits for the news, for a resolution, for penance to be rightfully paid.
All three women’s lives converge in the small neighbourhood around St Angelus, where secrets are let out of the jar, marriages are tested and, ultimately, children pay the price.
Ideas around truth, love, betrayal, marriage, family and religion bind this story together as well as the characters and Moriarty’s insightful, drily funny and sharp prose. Questions are raised around all these themes, and all are delightfully complicated, human and real. I have previously read The Hypnotist’s Love Story, by the same author, and absolutely loved it. This is a different story and somehow has a lightier, less dark tone to it, even though some pretty dark things are at its core. This effect could be due to the more flippant black humour and frank personal observations that fill its pages. It deals so honestly with married life, with raising a family, with our ideas of love and loyalty and trust, that while reading it you feel like you’re gaining an honest look inside the hearts and minds of women.
For this is, indeed, a woman’s story – a story of women, though not necessarily a story that’s only for women. The women who silently keep the world ticking over, generally unacknowledged though not unloved. When Tess is discussing the breakdown of her marriage with her mother, Lucy tells her that it’s important to put your ego aside. It’s a lesson at the heart of all the characters: can they put aside their own, sometimes childish emotions, their wants and hurts and upsets, and think of someone else?
While women are at front and centre of The Husband’s Secret, they are not the only ones hurt by these secrets. Children, always present but never centre-stage, are often the ones who pay the price. At a simple level, in one way, Janie paid with her life because of her parents’ strict Catholic refusal to allow her to have a boyfriend, resulting in her secret relationship and inability to be open with her mother (I wouldn’t want to say that this is actually why she died – nothing is that simple and I would never want to imply that a woman is to blame for what happens to her at the hand’s of a man’s temper, only that it was a contributing factor in Janie’s silence). What the women go through in this novel will break your heart, but what the children endure will devastate it.
Moriarty shows off her deft skill at creating believable, diverse characters, each with their own distinct voice and perspective, and weaving the threads of the narrative in such a way that it flows with impeccable timing yet never feels predictable. (I thought I knew where it was going and I thought there would be a big moral message, which I dreaded, but I need to have more faith in Moriarty: the ending is both perfect and realistically messy, full of possibilities and hope and anger.) All three main female characters felt like people I know; I even felt like there was a bit of myself in all of them. Provided with a distinct third-person point-of-view for Cecilia, Tess and Rachel, you not only get to see inside their heads and hearts, but the additional empathy means that the ethical and moral mess they’re all in has no clear solution. I honestly had no idea how Moriarty would bring it all together and close the story, and that only added to the tension.
While The Husband’s Secret delves into one particular hypothetical, it provides exquisite insight into the human response to tragedy, to betrayal and to the even bigger test: what would you do if you learned a secret that threatened your family’s happiness, yet the disclosure of it could bring peace and justice to another? What are we capable of enduring, of living with? What are we prepared to do to reassert a sense of justice and order in our world? And, how well does love endure? With nods to the legend of Pandora, Liane Moriarty skilfully constructs a compelling story that posits possible answers but leaves things just as ambiguous and complicated as life really is; it’s within these possibilities that our minds are free to roam and expand and, in turn, question ourselves.
“With consummate skill, Moriarty winds her way through a minefield of moral ambiguity as her story explores the very personal implications of choosing between right and wrong. […] The Husband’s Secret is a compelling, thought provoking novel, inspired by an article about real life deathbed confessions and their surprising consequences. An intriguing examination of conscience, love, betrayal and forgiveness this novel will stay with you well after the last page has been turned.” Book’d Out
“There are so many layers to appreciate in this novel. It is a story of motherhood, love, relationships, secrets, friendship, grief and forgiveness. It is a story of possibilities, both known and unknown, and a reminder that small acts (and more significant ones) can have consequences that we might never know or anticipate.” Reading Upside Down
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