Monday, March 27, 2023

The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen 


The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen (2018) is a bestselling domestic thriller that bears a strong resemblance to The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins.  Once again we have a 30 something ex-wife named Vanessa who could not get pregnant, started drinking and is now divorced from her handsome ex-husband Richard who has taken up with Nellie, Vanessa's 20 something replacement.  Vanessa has started following the happy couple determined to stop the marriage. Vanessa appears to be jealous, unbalanced and desparate to get Richard back. 

But all is not as it seems and around page 150 of The Wife Between Us we are hit with a twist that is quite well done.  The problem though is that after page 150 we still have 230 more pages to go and for me the book dragged.  The authors after the twist spend the rest of the book focusing on Vanessa as she tells us about what went wrong with her marriage to Richard.  As expected he is far from the prince she thought she was marrying.  He's abusive and controlling.  He spies on Vanessa and when she becomes aware of who he is she wants out but Richard is very wealthy with connections and has made it clear that no one walks out on him.

It can be dangerous to leave an abusive spouse since the abuser may come after you and so Vanessa comes up with a plan to make herself as undesirable as possible so that Richard will be the one who wants out.   She lets her appearance go.  She embarrasses him at company functions by pretending to be drunk.  She notices that Richard has a beautiful young assistant and goes about trying to bring them together so that Richard will have even more incentive to leave.   She fills a notebook with her interactions with Richard and the different ways he is trying to gaslight her and by the end of the novel I was wondering who is crazier, Richard or Vanessa.  And of course Vanessa's plan works too well.   Richard does leave her but now her replacement is in danger. 

I think the domestic thriller genre has gone overboard these days with unreliable narrators and "twists, twists and more twists" as one reviewer described it.  And The Wife Between Us ends with a final twist which in my opinion added nothing.  That said, this novel did receive a starred review from Publisher's Weekly.  But for me the domestic thriller, at least the books I've read, needs to get back to writing straightforward and plausible dramas which in the right hands will not need as many gimmicks to keep the reader hooked.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy by Letty Cottin Progrebin

I don't read as much non-fiction as I should but when I do I am always on the lookout for a good memoir.  And so when my friend Iris recommended Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy by Letty Cottin Progrebin (2022) I was interested.  Iris has never steered me wrong and I found Shanda to be a very honest, well written, and thought-provoking memoir in which the author reveals much about the role that fear, shame and thus keeping secrets has played in her life and the lives of her family members going back generations.  

Shanda is the yiddish word for shame and Letty grew up during a time when people did not talk about divorce, addiction, teen pregnancy, depression, financial matters and so many other topics.  What would the neighbors think or one's employer if they found out you had gotten divorced or were seeing a therapist or if you were a single parent or if you were gay etc etc. 

Letty says that her family was particularly prone to secrets partly because of the times they lived in, the 1940's and 1950's, but also because as Jewish immigrants leaving lands with terrible histories of anti-semitism and oppression keeping secrets was often necessary to survive.  Even in better times one had to be careful:

"The Elightenment enabled European Jews to live and work among their country’s majority population, though not always in comfort or safety. Their social status and religious liberty continued to depend on the whims of the powerful and the kindness of their neighbors. In good times, they could display their Hanukkah menorahs in their windows as tradition decrees; in bad times, they lit their candles behind closed doors"

Letty's grandmother at age 19 living in Ukraine did not want to marry the much older man her parents had arranged for her.  And so on her wedding night, before the marriage was consummated, she climbed out of the window and ran off with her true love, Letty's grandfather.  But her relatives here in America kept it silent that their  grandmother, however briefly, had a first husband.  Back then it would have been shameful to reveal even though today we rightly see it as courageous.   Letty discovered this secret as a young woman when her aunt accidently referred to grandma's first marriage.

And that's the thing about secrets.  Sometimes they are necessary but other times they do more harm than good and nowhere is that more true than in the secret Letty's parents kept from her and which she only discovered when she was 12 and a cousin blurted it out at a family gathering.  It forms the core of the book and as Letty writes: 

"Learning the truth about my family on the beach in Winthrop reordered my world. Betrayal became my burden, gullibility my shame. If those closest to me could lie without conscience or consequence, then anyone could misrepresent anything, and everything was up for grabs. I’m not saying I became pathologically suspicious, just inclined toward doubt. I ask a lot of questions .... a psychologist friend once overheard my conversation with a new acquaintance and likened it to “an intake interview.” If that’s an insult, I’ll cotton to it rather than be blindsided ever again"

I won't reveal the secret because I don't want to spoil the element of suprise in the book.  But what I will say is that the secret that Letty's parents, Ceil and Jack, were keeping is not shameful at all and nowadays no one would care.  But to keep their secret other secrets had to be constructed and that's where the damage occurred. 

I may be giving the impression that Letty spends all her time in Shanda focusing on her relatives and their secrecy and is tight lipped about her own life.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  She is very honest about her life and reveals quite a number of her own secrets and it makes for a memoir that is fascinating and will cause the reader  to think about their own families and what's been hidden  I know it did for me.

Thank you Iris for recommending Shanda.  

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

John Jakes and the Kent Family Chronicles

I was sad to hear about the death of the novelist John Jakes who passed away on March 11, 2023.  He was a prolific writer best known for his Kent Family Chronicles series of historical novels. There were 8 books in this series where we follow the fictional Kent Family and their descendents from the American Revolution to the 1890's Gilded Age. 

I read Jakes' first novel The Bastard (reviewed on Feb 19, 2019).  It was well written and I learned a good deal about the lead up to the American Revolution.  John Jakes worked history into his novels seamlessly knowing that the characters and the plot were key and it is fascinating to follow a family like the Kents through many generations and see how their grandchildren, great grandchildren, great great grandchildren turned out.

It was always my plan to read deeper into the Kent series and now I plan to.  John Jakes will be missed.