It’s been a while since I picked up a contemporary popular fiction book (and even longer since I read one by an Australian woman!), so it’s about time I gave Liane Moriarty’s breakthrough novel a go, don’t you think? The Husband’s Secret came out in 2013, and even though it was her fifth novel, it made one hell of a splash. It sold over 2 million copies worldwide, and Moriarty is now practically a household name. She also has the distinction of being the very first Australian to have a book debut at number one on the New York Times Best Seller List with Big Little Lies.
Jumping right in, The Husband’s Secret has one HECK of a premise! A woman finds an envelope, written in her husband’s hand, and it says (*ominous music*): “For my wife, only to be opened in the event of my death”. But her husband is still very much alive, and he won’t tell her what’s inside.
I think it goes without saying that, given that this is how the story begins, the opening chapter is an absolute cracker. My brain was whirring, I was dying of curiosity, convinced this book was a winner… but then, in chapters two and three, we almost inexplicably started bouncing around in the lives (and, later, timelines) of a bunch of other characters. None of them seemed particularly three-dimensional, and they all had generic white-people names: Rachel. Tess. Will. Jacob. Lauren. It wasn’t until their stories began to merge and intersect that things finally started making sense again.
The Husband’s Secret is set in Sydney, where Cecilia – the woman who finds the envelope – is an (otherwise) happily married mother-of-three. Her life looks pretty perfect from the outside, until she finds that envelope-shaped cat among the pigeons. Tess, it turns out, is a career-woman who returns to Sydney with her son after she finds out that her husband and her cousin are having an emotional affair. She enrolls her kid in the same school that Cecilia’s kids attend. And then there’s Rachel, the school secretary; she suspects that the P.E. teacher, Connor (who is, coincidentally, Tess’s ex-boyfriend), is the man responsible for the murder of her daughter thirty-odd years ago.
Do you see why it was confusing at first? I mean, the paths all eventually cross and Moriarty pieces it all together like a jigsaw puzzle, but I wasn’t a huge fan of that initial confusion. I just wanted to get back to the letter, dammit, not hear about the love lives and murders of all these other randoms!
So, back to THE LETTER! Reading the opening chapters of The Husband’s Secret triggered an intense debate in my household. I was immediately in my own husband’s ear, asking if he’d open the envelope in those circumstances. Long story (and many hours of argument) short: he wouldn’t, I would. I knew, instantly, reading that first page, that I would. I mean, come on now: it’s a secret letter! This is what makes The Husband’s Secret a really great read for book clubs. Love it or hate it, whatever your tastes, you know it’s going to stimulate some interesting conversations when you all get together.
So, we all know how much I hate spoiler warnings, but I feel obligated to offer one here, because this book is relatively recent and it’s kind of predicated on the “shock twist”. Consider this my warning: if you don’t want to know what’s in the envelope, bugger off and come back once you’ve read it for yourself.
So, no shit, Cecilia opens the letter (like any normal person! *ahem*) and it’s a confession that her husband was the one who killed the school secretary’s daughter, when he was seventeen! Like… what?!
The longer version of the story is this: he had a baby with Cecilia and suddenly got all sentimental about that girl he killed that one time. So, he wrote this letter, figuring no one would see it until after he was dead. And then he set about implementing all these self-flagellation measures in his life to “punish” himself for his crime, seeing as he was never going to go to jail. He forced himself to go without sex for six months, boo hoo. What a guy, right?!
Anyway, this big reveal comes surprisingly early, before you’re even half-way through The Husband’s Secret. Still, Moriarty manages to work in a few more twists down the line. She drip-feeds you the story of Jane’s murder, and takes you through the sprawling impact it had (and continues to have) on all of their lives. The epilogue had a real Life After Life feel about. it, actually, because it highlighted all the near-misses and almosts that led the story to its conclusion.
Let me level with you: the premise was fun, the twist was interesting, but The Husband’s Secret didn’t exactly blow me away. This is ultimately a story about toxic masculinity, but Moriarty didn’t really interrogate that theme as much as I’d have liked. Even though the story is focused on the three women, and told almost entirely from their perspectives, they were just passive receptacles for the garbage behaviour of the men in their lives. They were reactionary, rather than demonstrating any agency of their own, and they never really explained why they were so damn submissive.
All that said, it’s not like I was so unimpressed that I won’t seek out any more of Moriarty’s books. I mean, credit where credit is due: she managed to work in more than one plot twist I didn’t see coming, which I always appreciate (as most readers do), Plus, I really enjoyed reading a story set in my home city. Even when the topic is murder, there’s something really comforting about a familiar setting.
And off the back of the success of the HBO adaptation of Big Little Lies, CBS Films has acquired the rights to The Husband’s Secret. They announced back in 2017 that the film will star Blake Lively. I’m looking forward to checking it out, mostly because I’m curious from an artistic standpoint how the twist will translate to the screen. No word on the release date yet, though…
So, would I recommend this one? Maybe. If you’re looking for a challenging, meaty book to wrap your brain around, you’d best keep looking. But if you want something fun to talk about with your book club, or something to get your mother for Christmas, this one’s right up your alley. Do with that what you will!
My favourite Amazon reviews of The Husband’s Secret:
- “Without a doubt this is the worst book I’ve read this year. There is not a likable character in the entire book, and that includes a 2 year old….” – MSC
- “I didn’t like the format. I certainly didn’t like the story. Too depressing. Not my cup of tea. I read to slip into fantasy not depression.” – Amazon Customer
- “I hated this book so much I deleted it off my Kindle immediately so I wouldn’t be reminded of the time I wasted with it.” – LMPV
- “Such an enjoyable read! If you like books by Liane Moriarty this book is for you.” – Danielle Galanowsky
- “Fine book. Epilogue unneeded.” – McAwsm
- “It is well written, but I thought it was depressing and I didn’t finish it.” – Sandra Baumer
- “This was a stupid book. General Hospital is better.” – Amazon Customer
- “I find that authors who use profanity in storytelling demonstrate weak writing skills. It is offensive to me for writers to disrespect and dishonor God Almighty. Not one I could recommend.” – Karla Stores
- “eye roller” – JKADEN
- “buncha prudes” – Amazon Customer
- “Okay for a holiday read. Like the Tupperware party the story unfolds around, it has a a predictable feel emblazoned with plastic characters.” – CM