How to be a Good Wife – Emma Chapman
A few years ago I read Little Face, the first crime novel by author Sophie Hannah. As it was a while ago, I don’t remember the fine details of the story but I remember enjoying it and reading it rather quickly. Perhaps I have lovely memories of reading it because I read it while spending an afternoon sitting in the long awaited summer sunshine at the end of a particularly rainy spring.
I remember being intrigued by the main female character who spent much of the novel unsure of her memory and, by the end, questioning her sanity. The villain causing this terror was her husband; he insisted that the child sleeping in the crib was theirs yet instinct and small details made her equivocate between challenging him and doubting herself. Throw in a conniving mother-in-law and it was a rather creepy read!
The reason this book comes to mind now is because there is a current trend for novels that follow a similar plotline: a woman with a hazy memory is kept under tight control by her husband yet glimmers of hope and memory occasionally surface. I read a blog discussing what this may indicate about the female mind and whether these novels challenge or endorse subservience and reliance. Most importantly, is it a concern they are so popular? These debates don’t bother me; if it is a good read I will happily ignore the embedded psychology that some think may underpin a novel!
One of the most engaging books I have read recently is How to be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman. The story is told by Marta. Married to Hector for many years, she begins to feel at a loose end when their son makes a permanent move to the city. She begins to see visions of a young blonde girl but is this evidence of psychosis and her long history of mental illness, or is it indicating something more sinister about her past? The exact setting of this novel is never explicitly revealed but it seems to be in a small Scandinavian village, perhaps in a commuter belt outside a city. The small town makes for a claustrophobic setting, as does Marta’s domestic routine. From the first page I was curious about Marta’s fear of leaving the house and her cleaning obsession. Not really knowing what to expect with this novel, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself completely absorbed in the story, almost to the point where I would force myself to take breaks in order to stretch it out! It is an amazing debut and one of the best books I have read for a while.
How to be a Good Wife is a similar story to the 2011 debut Before I go to Sleep by SJ Watson. However, How to be a Good Wife is a much more sophisticated and gripping read. One of the main reasons for this is length. Chapman keeps her novel short and sharp. With both books having the female characters bound to the house, both Chapman and Watson had limited characters and events to work with. It was wise of Chapman not to make an epic out of rather restricted plot parameters. Before I go to Sleep was a page turner that keep me engaged but it was mostly to see how it ended; I never felt compelled to savour it and linger over the small details as I did with How to be a Good Wife. A few of the plot twists in Before I go to Sleep edged the unbelievable and the ending was too drawn out. One thing that did irk me was the chapters of Christine’s journal – I would have much preferred to have read proper diary entries to hear her voice more distinctly. Despite this, I did recommend Before I go to Sleep to a colleague who ranked it as a favourite book of the year.
My final thought for this blog: Do the husbands in these stories really have nothing better to do with their time than create such elaborate lies in order to fool so few people?
How to be a Good Wife – 5 Stars
Little Face – 4 Stars
Before I go to Sleep – 3 Stars
Orange Pekoe’s Update: When I originally published this post I ended by saying I wanted to read Gone Girl as it was also promoted as having unreliable narrators in a domestic setting. I have since read it and unfortunately I fall far from being in the ‘love it’ category. I thought that it surely couldn’t end as badly as I anticipated it would, but it actually exceeded my fears concerning plausibility.
- How to Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman – review (guardian.co.uk)
- My hero: Agatha Christie by Sophie Hannah (guardian.co.uk)
- How to be a good wife – Emma Chapman (gcbooks.wordpress.com)
- Unreliable narrators: a booklist (robbinslibrary.wordpress.com)