Book Review: The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

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This is the second Liane Moriarty book I’ve read (the first being Big Little Lies, a great book and the reason I’m now reading her entire back catalogue). I’m pleased to report it was as well written and intriguing as my first endeavour.

The Husband’s Secret follows that same format as Big Little Lies, alternating chapters that follow the three main characters through a short but intense period in their suburban Sydney lives. There’s Cecilia, a Tupperware party thrower extraordinaire, married with three children. There’s Tess, a socially challenged advertising business manager and owner, married with one child. And there’s Rachel, a generation older than both Cecilia and Tess, widowed, and a mother of two. However, one of those two was murdered three decades ago and Rachel has never found any peace.

The novel opens with each of the women finding out something that has the potential to turn their lives upside down. Rachel discovers her remaining child, her son, will be moving to New York with his wife who has been offered a terrific work opportunity, taking Rachel’s beloved grandson and only reason for living with them. Tess is informed by her formerly fat but now fabulously flawless cousin and her husband that they’ve fallen in love. And Cecilia finds a letter addressed to her from her husband marked ‘To be opened only in the event of my death’. Only her husband isn’t dead. He’s travelling overseas on business.

The link between the three women is the death of Rachel’s daughter, Janie. Cecilia remembers her from when they were at school together, a few years older but imprinted on her memory from a single unimportant school sports carnival incident. Tess, after fleeing her husband, her cousin and her Melbourne home for the comfort of her mother’s and her childhood residence, finds herself flung head-first into her own affair with Connor Whitby, a long ago ex-boyfriend and the main suspect, in Rachel’s eyes anyway, in Janie’s death.

There are a couple of things that frustrated me: the letter containing the eponymous husband’s secret and the storyline involving Tess. After Cecilia finds the letter, she asks her husband about it when he makes his daily phone call home. He tells her he wrote it after the birth of their first child and that it’s just him rambling on about how much he loves his family. Even though Cecilia finds the letter in the very first chapter and thinks he’s lying about its contents, she agrees to his request not to read it and doesn’t until nearly 150 pages in. Because it takes so long for her to read it, it becomes clear Moriarty is using writers’ tricks to string out the suspense. She does this in order to give the reader a proper insight into Cecilia’s normal life before turning it upside down but she could have done that by having her find the letter later, thus shortening the gap and preventing my frustration.

And then there’s the storyline involving Tess. As much as I enjoyed this book overall, after I was finished reading it I realised that Tess’s story could be removed without much negative impact at all. In fact, it seemed the only reason for her presence was so that Connor got some page time with the readers and had a chance to plead his innocence and plant the seeds of doubt about whether or not he did kill Janie. Another writer’s trick.

There are a lot of similarities between The Husband’s Secret and Big Little Lies. They are both suburban novels involving ordinary people and an untimely death, gradually revealing how it impacts lives far beyond the reach of those immediately involved and ultimately discovering who is responsible and the poetic justice of that responsibility, even if actual justice never occurs.

If this is Moriarty’s formula, it’s certainly one that works well. But again I’ve held back that final star because while I enjoyed reading it, it didn’t jolt me or surprise me or wow me over the edge into fifth star territory. That might be a result of it seeming formulaic, even though that formula isn’t clichéd. And maybe I’ll find the fifth star territory in one of Moriarty’s remaining back catalogue books. I hope so. I’ll keep reading her books even if I don’t find it. They are solid efforts. More than solid. Impressive page-turners. Well worth the reading time required.

4 stars

*First published on Goodreads 9 October 2015

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