How To Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman (St. Martin’s Press, Oct. 2013)-Marta Bjornstad has been married to her husband Hector for almost 25 years. He’s a respected and well liked teacher, and Marta took great joy in raising their son, Kylan. But Kylan is grown now, and Marta is starting to feel as if her carefully constructed existence is beginning to crumble. She’s having strange visions of a young girl, and things around the house seem out of place. Could it be because she’s experiencing what every parent experiences when their children leave home? Could it be the stagnation of a long marriage? Or could it be something else? How to Be a Good Wife is told in first person by Marta, and she intersperses her narrative with quotes from “How to Be a Good Wife”, given to her early in her marriage by Hector’s intimidating and overbearing mother. Passages like “Make your home a place of peace and order.”, and “Let your husband take care of the correspondence and finances of the household. Make it your job to be pretty and gay.” You get the picture. Hopelessness and melancholy seem to surround Marta from the beginning, and every time Hector makes an appearance, there’s a definite sense of foreboding, although in the beginning, he never quite does anything to invite suspicion. Somehow the author manages to make every day occurrences seem anything but banal, but you can’t help but wonder if Marta is a reliable narrator. However, the unfolding events give light to something quite sinister and ultimately devastating.
This gothic little creeper was a one-sitting read for me. There is a pervading sense of dread that runs throughout the book, and the author manages to inject menace into the most ordinary of things. A dinner with Marta’s son Kylan, his fiancé, and Hector’s ice queen mother is startlingly uncomfortable, and Marta’s increasing suspicion that something is very, very wrong, and her determination to “keep it together” is painful to witness. It’s also very relatable to anyone that’s been in a long marriage or any long term relationship, and it serves to highlight not only our expectations of ourselves, but also our partner’s expectations of us. Marta’s mental state deteriorates rapidly and darkness looms around every corner, but are Marta’s suspicions real or the product of a diseased mind? I know what I think, but you’ll have to decide for yourself, and that’s what I liked most about this solid domestic thriller. I thought about this one long after I finished. This was a great debut from a writer to watch.