I sometimes feel as if it's best to read a book in a vacuum.
Knowing things about the author; their age, if they live locally, whether or not you'd love to raid their wardrobe will inevitably influence the way you feel about their book. I think this definitely happened with How to be a Good Wife. But I'll start at the beginning.
You may have seen a couple of posts ago that I saw Emma Chapman speak at the Perth Writers Festival. I was impressed by her focussed, almost quiet confidence (with the appropriate amount of timidity about said confidence, if that is possible) and by the way that her voice changed to a loving, calm tone when she read her own words to us. I find this happens with most writers when they read aloud. The book itself had been selling rather well as I understood it, due in no small part to the recommendation from none other than Hilary Mantel. Wow. No small achievement there! I'd sort of mentally made note to read this book, but I was in no tearing hurry until I heard Chapman speak about the novel and about her passion for writing it. So I think on some level my reaction to the book has been tampered with by my own expectations.
Coming into this novel straight off a weekend long reading binge, I immediately felt a slowing of pace. How to be a Good Wife is a psychological, character driven narrative, and the first one hundred pages or so document the main character, Marta, slowly losing her grip on reality (or 'reality'?) Interwoven with strange things happening in the present are recollections of the past- the narrative dips in and out of them in such a way that it sometimes seems as if the past and present are happening simultaneously. This was at times disorienting- I found myself having to backtrack in order to discover whether or not I'd missed something. However, Chapman has a skill for description which grounds the reader firmly in the eyes of the character, and it is easy to visualise the things Marta is seeing for yourself.
The book almost seems to have two parts to it. The first part of the book seems to be a slow moving drama about a mother's grief at her son leaving home, and her awkward relationship with her husband. This part of the book is easy to read in small chunks, simple to dip in and out of casually. I put the slow pace largely down to the awkwardness of writing from a first person point of view in present tense. A lot of sentences start with "I" or "My". The second half of the book- where Marta discovers the dark secret- is less willing to let you go. It's nearly impossible to review this book without giving spoilers, but suffice to say, this is the point in the book at which the genre becomes psychological thriller, and it is as if the pace of the story, like Marta has awakened. This part demands to be read in one sitting, and if you read this far, will change your opinion of the entire book. It's like an "oh, hello!" moment. So persevere.
Other minor gripes with this book include the very two dimensional insight into the married lives of older couples- troubles with the mother in law, a feeling of hopelessness after the child leaves- which is not ground-breaking, and offers no new insight. It is Marta's situation and the idea that all of it might be rooted in a lie and manufactured to brainwash her that make the book refreshing. I also really liked the way that Chapman has peeled back the dramatic edge of the story to make the mundane things seem spine chilling.
All in all, while I don't think that this book was as brilliant a debut as people were raving about I still thought it was a very good read, and I learned a lot about NOT overdoing it from reading it. Also, I do really really really want to raid Emma Chapman's wardrobe.
I give this book three out of five.