The Husband’s Secret (2013) is the fifth of Moriarty’s six novels, all of which are stories about families and relationships, and how ordinary lives teeter on the edge of the abyss of disaster. Moriarty lives in Sydney, but her work seems to have special appeal in America; she’s one of the few Australian authors to have had three books on the New York Times best sellers list at the same time. Moriarty is popular in England too: this book features on the Richard and Judy Book Club list in 2013.
The book begins by introducing three women. There is Celia, mother of three daughters, successful Tupperware party host, and pillar of her daughters’ primary school community. ‘Celia … knew exactly where each tiny piece of her life belonged, and where it needed to be slotted in next’. By chance she comes across a letter written by her husband, John-Paul, which is ‘To be opened only in the event of my death’. Can she stop herself from opening it, even though he is still very much alive? Then there is Tess. She runs and advertising company with her husband Tim and her cousin Felicity, and has just found out from them that they have fallen in love. ‘They were good people, and that’s why they were going to be so nice about this, so understanding and accepting of Tess’s rage, so that in the end Tess would be the bad person, not them.’ And what about their son, Liam? The third woman is Rachael. She hopes her son and daughter-in-law are going to tell her they are having another baby; instead they tell her that they are taking her grandson Jacob with them to New York for two years. ‘She had no idea her life was so flimsily constructed, like a stack of cards … Remove the Jacob card and her life collapsed.’ For Rachael lives with the pain that her daughter Janie was murdered, for which no one has ever been held to account.
Having established these story strands, Moriarty weaves them ever more closely together till they produce tragedy, resolution and acceptance. The story is told from the perspective of each of them, with brief flashbacks to Janie on her last day. The writing could probably be called ‘free indirect style’, where ‘where a character’s voice is probably the silent inward one of thought’. This allows characters to be self-critical, aware of their subterfuges and evasions. ‘She’d talked too much when she’d met Tess and her mother … Babbled. Sometimes she could hear herself doing it. Oh well.’ It also allows the author some knowledge of the ‘little did she know’ variety – what if Janie had lived in this case – and there is an epilogue full of what might have happened but didn’t.
Moriarty’s writing is appealing because it so cleverly catches the middle class vernacular of the world these characters inhabit. It’s as if she is privy to all the conversations we’ve ever has with our children. For example Celia is driving: she can hear a child’s iPad. ‘Can you please turn that off,’ Celia said to Esther. ‘It’s distracting.’ ‘Just let me – .’ ‘Turn it off! Can’t one of you children just once do what I ask, the first time? Without negotiating? Just Once?’ Reading it, I was strongly reminded of Joanna Trollope, who has the same skill.
The whole point of the characters is their ordinariness. Cecilia sometimes wonders whether she wants something dramatic to happen to her: ‘Sometimes her life seemed so little.’ ‘Is that what you want, Cecilia?’ she asks herself. ‘Some nice big exciting tragedy?’ But when she gets it, of course she doesn’t like it at all. The story reminds us just how close we all are to the vagaries of existence – past actions that turn out to have consequences for the present, accidents that could happened to anyone, and secrets randomly revealed. It’s also about limits. Cecilia finds that she had no idea what her real limits were until she was pushed to them. ‘She could easily have gone her whole life without knowing those limits, but now she knew exactly where they lay.’ Are they the limits we would accept for ourselves? Knowing all the circumstances, how can we judge? And despite the occasional flights into what might have been, the moral of the story seems to be that ‘Perhaps nothing was ever ‘meant to be. There was just life, and right now, doing your best. Being a bit ‘bendy’.’
Realistic characters, a plot with interesting twists, thoughts you might have had yourself and the challenge of thinking about what you would do in these circumstances. So what’s not to like? I did enjoy the book, but couldn’t help sometimes feeling it was a little bit too knowing, a bit too slick. It’s not that I don’t think excellent books can be written about ordinary everyday things; it’s just that this one feels a bit too much like Desperate Housewives and not enough like Middlemarch. Or am I just being a literary snob?