What happens when you dream up some characters, give them what seem to be perfect lives, and then throw them all in a bag called dysfunction? Toss in ambiguous POV storytelling and an ambiguous ending, and you get The Younger Wife.
The books opens with an unnamed POV crashing the wedding of established, respected – revered, even -Dr Stephen Ashford to his much younger second wife. After the vows, there’s a thunk and a scream, and suddenly we are moving back in time to What Happened Before.
Heather, the younger wife of the tile is about the age of Stephen’s grown daughters. Stephen’s wife Pam suffers from dementia and is in a nursing home where she can be tended.
Rachel, the older of the Ashford sisters, is a baker, and hasn’t dated anyone since she was 16. We’re not told why until late in the book (and the end of that intentional dry spell turns out to be Mr Perfect: handsome, witty, understanding. Of course he does.)
Tully, the younger sister, is an obsessive kleptomaniac who engages her compulsion when she is stressed, and she tries to hide the things she takes from her husband by dumping them into charity boxes. Her husband, for his part, has made a disastrous investment and lost a couple of million dollars, so they’ll have to sell their house, sell a bunch of their stuff, and downsize.
Heather grew up in poverty, eventually breaking out of that and eventually becomes a well-regarded an expensive interior designer, which is how she met Stephen.
Stephen and Heather (well, primarily Stephen) spring the wedding news on Rachel and Tully at lunch one day. Not a nice thing to do, and of course they are shocked. The remainder of the book is told from POVs that cycle through the female characters. Secrets and backgrounds are slowly exposed, until we get to the heart of the matter: is Stephen a domestic abuser? The girls seem to think so, sifting through memories, looking at injuries their mother sustained, Heather being involved in a couple of falls, an so on.
Or, is it all in their heads? Are their memories being tainted by their conclusion that he is? This is where the ambiguity comes in.
It’s not possible for the reader to accurately make that determination. The girls do – of course, as otherwise, there would be no ending or explanation as to what happened at the beginning – but for the reader, it’s akin to the Choose Your Own Adventure books: do you take the dirt path and change being eaten by a bear? Or do you take the path through the woods, chancing death by tiger?
What you cannot do, in life or in this book, is not choose.
If you’re a reader who likes a definitive ending, this is not the book for you.
The only thing I noted was a little sag in the middle, and Mr Perfect showing up in Rachel’s life.
Four out of five stars.
Thanks to St Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the reading copy.