Teresa and I read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl at almost exactly this time last year, and we both liked it a lot. I happened to see someone’s very brief review of A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife, saying essentially that she’d liked it better than Gone Girl, found it more satisfying and better done. Despite the fact that I don’t know that reviewer well, I was intrigued, and when I found myself at loose ends with an hour to kill in a bookstore, I picked this up.
I guess this novel did get compared to Gone Girl a lot (“this summer’s Gone Girl!” a formulation I despise even more than “if you liked XX, you’ll like YY”), mostly because it’s about an extremely dysfunctional marriage. But to be honest, there’s little similarity between the two books. Gillian Flynn’s novel was about codependent sociopaths flaring out of control, hurting each other through manipulation so extreme that it defied the standards of normal human behavior and tipped over into absurdity and crime and terror. The Silent Wife, on the contrary, is about a marriage that’s absurd only in its surface perfection. Jodi and Todd have money, leisure, jobs they love. Jodi is a domestic goddess and has gorgeous meals and drinks prepared for Todd when he comes home (from his college-age mistress, the daughter of his best friend); Todd brings her exquisite little gifts, tailored to her taste (knowing she will pretend she sees nothing, just as she always has.)
Jodi and Todd’s marriage has depended for twenty years on their ability to stay on the surface. Jodi has an almost magical capacity to elevate herself above Todd’s infidelities and other cracks in the glaze of her life. She is a therapist, and her approach to her clients’ problems is similar: be positive, comfort yourself, rise above it, ignore it and after a time it will go away. But this time she is forced to acknowledge what is going on, because Todd — impulsive Todd, with his family history of alcoholism and ambition — is leaving her.
The pleasure of this book, for me, was in the way it gently unfolded its protagonists’ psychology. When we are first introduced, we don’t understand why either Jodi or Todd are behaving the way they are: what keeps them on the surface, what could possibly maintain a marriage with so much chaos just under the ice. By the end, we have been put in the place of armchair psychologists, and we’ve been given enough information to know not only that, but also what causes both Jodi’s and Todd’s subsequent behavior and all the consequences. The ending is thoroughly satisfying, not necessarily because it’s what anyone wants, but because it’s what the motivations lead us to believe must happen. Todd and Jodi are caught in their pasts, in their long-ingrained habits, in the way they’ve enabled each other for years. It’s weirdly believable that it all turns deadly so quickly.
The book moves fairly slowly. People who were looking for “this summer’s Gone Girl” might be disappointed by the lack of high-octane craziness. Personally, I liked it; the subtleness worked for me, and I thought the writing was on the good side of workmanlike. It’s also not a long novel, which I appreciate. The 350-page novel is so formulaic these days that I often think authors overstuff their books in order to get a page count. This one was nice and lean. Some of the imagery was a little heavy-handed (Jodi always dresses in beige and white, okay, we get it) but I often find that gets weeded out after the first novel.
Sadly, this was a first novel and a last one. A.S.A. Harrison died just after publishing her book. It’s a shame; I’d have liked to see this particular talent develop. A sneaky, quick, chilly read.