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Author Karma Brown says the question of 'Who am I?' is Recipe For A Perfect Wife’s central theme.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Each one of bestselling author Karma Brown’s books begins with a “what if." In the case of her latest novel, that question was: “What if two women, living 50 years apart, with a shared cookbook between them, lived in the same house, both with secrets?”

The result of that thought experiment is Recipe for a Perfect Wife, which tells two stories in parallel: Nellie, a thoroughly Stepford-ian housewife circa 1950, and Alice, the 29-year-old woman who reluctantly decamps New York with her husband in the present day. The constant is the suburban New York dwelling they both live in – and, of course, the fact that they’re both trying to figure out what they want from life, a desire increasingly at odds with what all the people around them seem to want for (and from) them. Add two unlikeable-for-different-reasons husbands, a hearty helping of white lies that turn into whopping untruths, a sadness that seems to weep from the very walls of this home, and you get a discomfiting, page-turning read.

To readers familiar with Brown’s work, such as The Choices We Make and The Life Lucy Knew, that synopsis might already feel like a departure from the tender, moving work she’s known for (“An emotional story of love, loss and healing” would serve as appropriate cover copy for any one of her four bestselling novels.) While Recipe for a Perfect Wife is certainly not lacking in gut-wrenching scenes, including abuse, rape and murder, it is less about riding the emotional roller coaster with Brown than it is engaging in a conversation with her as she tackles the knottier issues of gender stereotypes, female agency and just how many questionable decisions are acceptable in the pursuit of self-discovery.

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“No one’s crying in this book,” Brown says matter-of-factly over the phone from her home outside of Toronto. “Most of my other books are ‘tissues required,’ so it was fun for me to break out of writing those really sad stories. I loved doing them, but to be honest, I needed a break.”

But Recipe for a Perfect Wife is not, as you may have already gathered, a romp-y romance, comedy of manners or thriller, although it does have a touch of domestic noir, dialled back from earlier, decidedly more supernaturally inclined drafts. This is a Karma Brown book, after all, and as her passionate following can attest, she’s a writer whose trademark is sincerity, and who takes her characters seriously to the point of earnestness. Where others might have been tempted to make a satire out of her characters (Alice, in particular, could easily have been a spoof of millennial quarter-life crisis), Brown toes a determinedly realist line here: The husband and wife in her present-day plot, for instance, come into conflict over Nate’s monitoring of Alice’s menstrual cycle and his insensitive gift of ovulation sticks to her when she’s clearly undecided whether she’s ready for children. The stuff of romcoms this is not.

What it is, however, is Brown’s way of exploring issues that, while utterly quotidian, are the sorts of things that define most of our lives, especially for women: How do you balance career and family? What if you want one and not the other? Can you have it all? (“Not all at once,” Brown says, by the way.) How do you navigate what she calls “the chaos of your 30s,” when you’re both settling into the choices you’ve made and yet conscious of everything you feel as if you’re running out of time to do.

She writes from experience, though, she’s quick to add, nothing is autobiographical. Brown, now 47, moved from the big city to the suburbs and stays home to look after her daughter. She’s keenly aware of how her 11-year-old daughter might subconsciously be absorbing her family’s dynamic: “I’m raising her to be a strong feminist, but she’s grown up with me at home, cooking most of our meals, taking her to dentist appointments,” says Brown, who’s been married for 15 years. “I realize that there are actually a lot of gender stereotypes in my own house – and as much as I am very much a feminist and have a career outside of being home, she sees me as the ‘mom who stays home.’” She continues: “That was interesting for me to address for myself, because I don’t necessarily see myself that way, but I understand that’s the role I’m currently playing.”

That question of “Who am I?" is Recipe For A Perfect Wife’s central theme, and, a little bit chagrined, Brown says she owes it to an episode of the FBI melodrama Quantico. “The main character was struggling with all of these things that are happening to her, and someone says to her ‘You need to decide who you are and what you want.’ I remember thinking that was such a profound question,” says Brown, who, as an aside, has found some of her actual novel ideas through stories she discovers on her daily trawl of People online. “Not, ‘What are the labels that are placed on me?’ but ‘Who am I?’– and then making that decision for yourself, before other people around you decide for you. As soon as I heard that, I just had to put it in a book.”

As for how she’d answer that question herself? “I think about it all the time,” Brown says, adding that it has evolved over time. “I was diagnosed with cancer when I was 30, and that certainly changes who you are. It’s an empowering question to ask yourself – and it’s okay not to know the answer. I certainly don’t have it all figured out.”

For a long time, Brown actually referred to this novel as “her secret book.” She had the idea of Nellie – a young woman trapped in an unhappy marriage by the conventions of her time – around the time her debut, Come Away With Me, was published in 2013, and she actually pitched it as her second book. Her publisher, however, was looking for another “emotional” follow-up to her first’s success, and so they went in another direction. But Brown kept working on the idea, plugging away over three years in between her other books, writing various drafts that saw the story morph significantly (no spoilers, but instead of the one murder that’s in the final version, at one point Brown had another character meeting his end through foxglove poison, too).

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And while the result is a different sort of novel than she’s produced before, Brown says her aim remains the same as it’s always been: “I know I can’t write a perfect book for everybody, but I just hope I write a good story in the end.”

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