A heartbreaking liar makes for a solid villain. He or she (usually he) possesses two conflicting inner demons: a pathological inability to be monogamous, and an equally strong inability to be honest about it. Usually he is married to another well-worn type: the smart and beautiful heterosexual woman who settles for cheating men out of desperation, low self-esteem, denial. See: any romantic comedy or soap opera. Or: Rochester.
Cheaters aren’t always men, of course. See: Bovary. (Lionel Shriver’s under-celebrated novel The Post-Birthday World is an excellent guide to the female philanderer.) The cheater and the cheated-on make for an automatic conflict; their motivations are clear and opposing and the possibility for drama is high. And when the old story is done well, taken to new heights, it can be made anew. It is hard to imagine a more extreme and complicated case of philanderer v. martyr than A.S.A. Harrison’s thrill-ride of a debut, The Silent Wife.
This is mostly because the philanderer isn’t smart or caring enough to really cover his tracks that well, and his wife is no doe-eyed victim. Told in alternating chapters from the point of view of a married couple, The Silent Wife is an intense and intelligent psychological thriller. Todd is a bit of a man-child, a 46-year-old real-estate tycoon whose common-law wife, Jodi, lays his clothes out on the bed for him every night. They live in a pricey Chicago condo, drive a Porsche (him) and an Audi (her), and maintain a comfortable upscale life. There is nothing really appealing about Todd, except he has some money and status, and for Jodi he has become a comfortable fixture at the dinner table for 20 years.
He has always been a cheater, and Jodi has always known this about him, and as long as it isn’t discussed, Jodi lives with it. Her ability to shrug it off despite the hurt it causes her is curious, maddening and understandable. From her perspective, “Cheaters prosper; many of them do. And even if they don’t, they are not going to change, because, as a rule, people don’t change – not without strong motivation and sustained effort.” Jodi believes that people make mistakes, and that other people are not around merely for our own fulfilment. She is both a psychotherapist and a non-emotive pragmatist, and as long as her domestic routines remain unchanged and appearances are kept, she lives in a kind of sustained pseudo-happiness.
“The all-intensive pretense must be maintained,” she explains. She doesn’t seem like an old-fashioned or doormat wife. She has an active social life with friends, an interesting private practice, she takes evening classes. If she could also have extramarital sex, perhaps they would find a mutually fulfilling arrangement. But Jodi doesn’t want to stray, and she doesn’t want to admit that his straying hurts her. In an early chapter, she admits that if she were the type to dwell on the past, she would “have left him or strangled him” years ago. Initially, she comes across as rational, if not frighteningly uptight, with eyes wide open and her fate accepted. Todd enjoys maintaining the ruse as it benefits him the most, but when his young mistress becomes pregnant, he is shaken from this comfortable dual life, and everything unravels.
It is excruciating to read about all the ways they cling to their dysfunction; Harrison takes this to a brilliant extreme. Both characters resist going through any kind of authentic emotional transformation, even though their life together is far from fulfilling, emotionally or sexually. It is never clear whether Jodi and Todd ever truly care about each other. They rely on each other for structure and meaning – particularly in Jodi’s case. Todd doesn’t actually see women as whole people, although he admires Jodi’s stoicism and the ways in which she seems stronger than other women. He knows she’s smarter than he is. Their attachment is both baffling and authentically rendered by the insightful Harrison. While the novel becomes, as it moves forward, a page-turning whodunit, it is at its heart an autopsy of the North American obsession with marriage at all costs, with mediocre routines and consumerism as a worthwhile replacement for connection and true intimacy.
The Silent Wife has been described as “a gripping story of deception.” But both parties start out knowing exactly what’s going on, and the identity of the true clueless victim is far from predictable. It’s an impressive debut from a talented new voice. Sadly, it is from an author who passed away from cancer before its publication. It’s a shame that we won’t have more insightful novels from A.S.A. Harrison, because The Silent Wife is the perfect literary summer page turner.
Zoe Whittall’s most recent novel is Holding Still for as Long as Possible. She is a frequent Globe Books contributor.