I haven’t been the only one to notice the spate of recently published books with the word ‘wife’ or ‘husband’ in the title. Some have even hastened to call it a new (sub)genre. Rosamund Urwin calls it ‘chick noir’ and claims that readers are attracted to the horror at home, the ultimate unknowability of one’s life partner. Lucie Whitehouse in The Guardian calls it ‘the marriage thriller‘ and argues that it is about the life stage most female readers are in, rather than just trying to copycat the success of Gone Girl.
I really liked Gone Girl, although I wouldn’t necessarily want to read five more books similar to it. However, the reason why I object to the idea of a new genre (let alone the terrible term of ‘chick noir’) is because marriage is not just for women. It is cynical to market such psychological thrillers to female readers, especially when the subject itself is as old as the hills. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Woman in White, Rebecca, even Bleak House could all be called ‘marriage thrillers’, if we like such labels. And that’s just the English language novels.
Two of the books I recently read are usually lumped together under the ‘like Gone Girl’ category, just like any Scandinavian crime writer has been hailed as the next Stieg Larsson. They are quite different from Gillian Flynn’s novel and from each other, and I’d like to consider them on their own terms.
Lucie Whitehouse’s novel Before We Met tells of the perfect marriage which may be hiding some unsavoury secrets. It owes some allegiance to the twisty dark tales of Nicci French and Sophie Hannah (both of whose novels are more about single women than married ones, incidentally!), or films like ‘The Stranger Beside Me’ or ‘Sleeping with the Enemy’.
Hannah is a successful and happily single advertising executive working in New York. She meets charming and even more successful fellow Brit Mark Reilly through mutual friends and very quickly falls in love. Although she is scared of commitment since her parents’ marriage broke down, she decides not just to marry Mark, but also to give up her career to follow him to London. With her job hunt stagnating and her husband not showing up at the airport when she expected him, she becomes increasingly suspicious and forgets about her determination to not turn into her mother, whose jealousy and bitterness (she believes) drove her father away.
This book has a very easy, highly readable style. It slides down your reading gullet like a smooth chocolate mousse… and has perhaps just as much consistency. It is frothy, the gradual reveal works well, and it will while away a rainy afternoon, but I found it a little too predictable for my liking. There is insufficient motivation for the actions of either Hannah or Mark and I found myself not caring very much about them in their rather privileged little world (even if they have had to work quite hard to attain the privilege). In fact, the people I ended up caring most about were their mothers. Short verdict: Good enough, but not memorable.
Natalie Young’s novel Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband is certainly not easy reading. This will not be a crowd pleaser of a book. Open-minded and eclectic in my reading tastes as I am, I found the initial chapters with the descriptions of cutting up and preparing human flesh for dinner rather nauseating. Perhaps there are a bit too many such descriptions and recipes. Yet, as I read on, I realised that this is a very sly novel, almost surrealistic in its approach. Boris Vian or Roland Topor transposed to the calmer English country-side.
Lizzie Prain is a fifty-something housewife who has never excelled at anything, never been loved, never seemed to have a mind of her own. One day she snaps and hits her husband on the head with a spade while he is out gardening. She feels she has wasted nearly all of her life so far and has no intention of wasting even more of it in prison. So she decides to do away with the evidence by gradually eating every little piece of her husband, which she has preserved in the freezer.
There is something inherently comical about the contrast between the extreme events described in the book and the quiet, middle-aged main character, as well as the matter-of-fact, almost flat way in which the story is told. The author is too subtle to make the husband a monster, but it is nevertheless a study of repressed feelings and almost off-hand bullying in a marriage that has never had any spark. I do feel the author could have gone further, been more ferocious in the blackness of her humour, more satirical or surrealist in her treatment of the couple. An interesting attempt, and the bullet points Lizzie writes to herself are very poignant, but ultimately just a little too timid. Short verdict: memorable, but good enough?
For more reviews of the two books, see here (and can I just point out that neither of the reviewers of Season to Taste are women? So much for that chick tag!)
Simon Savidge – Season to Taste
Reader Dad – Season to Taste
Daneet Steffens in The Boston Globe – Before We Met
Alice Jones in The Independent – Before We Met