The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
This isn’t the sort of book where guessing what the husband’s secret is too early will ruin it for you. Clever readers might pick it up from the back flap. But that’s not what this book is all about. The book is about how secrets and foolish actions have a rippling effect, distorting and damaging the lives of people one hasn’t even met.
There are three families at the heart of this story. Cecelia and John-Paul with their three girls, Tess and William (and her cousin Felicity, with whom Tess is quite close) and Rachel, who dotes on her grandson Jacob. All three are going through major upheavals. Cecelia finds a note from John-Paul to be opened upon his death. William and Felicity confess to Tess that they have fallen in love, and Rachel learns that Jacob’s parents are taking him to live in New York. What these three families initially have in common is a Catholic school in Sydney named Saint Angelos and a man named Connor Whidbey. One of Cecelia and John-Paul’s daughters adores Mr. Whidbey, Tess has an affair with him, and Rachel despises him because she thinks he murdered her daughter Janey.
Janey’s murder, never solved by the police, looms large in most of the minds and memories of the adults who work in or have children who attend Saint Angelos. Rachel never quite gets over it, and people don’t quite know how to treat her. Her grief is like a dark stinky cloud that surrounds her and people shy away. Rachel learned that Connor was the last person to see Janey alive, but she doesn’t understand why. Janey was a good Catholic girl who didn’t hang out with boys, or so Rachel believed. Seeing how the course of Rachel’s life was so irrevocably altered by Janey’s death was one of the strengths of this book. Janey had a younger brother, Rob, who you can see was also hurt by his sister’s murder, not just by the fact of it and his own grief but by the way his mother never quite got over it. Because Janey didn’t live, she never got to be imperfect and have her relationship with her family evolve.
Cecelia is a perfectionist, dedicated to being the perfect mother, PTA president and killer Tupperware representative. She’s one of those women you see sometimes at schools and think does everything better than you so you kind of hate her for it while also admiring her. When she finds John-Paul’s letter, she’s extremely troubled by it. Who wouldn’t be? What could it contain? She promises not to open it, and intends to, but John-Paul reveals its importance by his actions and she changes her mind. Moriarty teases and hints at possibilities: a suicide pact, an affair, a closeted homosexual. Then she reveals the secret you probably guessed early on. Cecelia knows that this secret probably can’t be kept any longer and that keeping it has hurt John-Paul for decades. But if they reveal it, their lives are probably all ruined, not just John-Paul’s but his whole family.
The secret that ruins Tess’ life is that her cousin Felicity (who is more like a twin) and Tess’ husband Will have fallen in love. The three of them are deeply enmeshed in one anothers’ lives. They even run a company together. Tess takes her son Liam and flees to Sydney, using the excuse of her mother’s broken ankle. Nursing her broken heart, she falls into a relationship with her old boyfriend Conner Whidbey (I listened to the audiobook version so I’m guessing on the spellings here.) Now Tess has her own secret, and her own decision to make as to whether she can get past the hurt of betrayal and rebuild her marriage or if she’s going to dump it and forge ahead with someone new.
One of the things I like about this book is the way that all of the people, even the children, have their own personalities and motivations. No one is just a person trying to look out for themselves; everyone is connected to other people by blood or love or circumstance or society. (It’s a huge change from the other book I was reading which I finished a day before this, in which only one person in the book had another human being he cared about besides himself.) This isn’t escapist fiction, where the reader can delve into problems that are easily solvable through violence or cunning. This is a complex story about relationships, with the theme of sin and punishment, guilt and redemption and how small acts can damage families, how one person’s choice can affect people even decades later.
There are some interesting subplots or themes that color the novel as well. One of Cecelia’s children, Esther, is obsessed with the Berlin Wall, and her stories of the people who tried to escape and either succeeded or didn’t resonate with Cecelia’s emotional landscape. And the events of the weekend coincide with both Easter and the anniversary of Janey’s murder. Another thing Moriarty does is tell you what would have happened, had Janey not been murdered, or had she taken different actions that day. This is really everything you want in a novel; an interesting setting with interesting characters with real stakes and a satisfying yet believable ending.