Sometimes the idea of reading another unabashed “women’s” novel, where the men have eyes like “beaten copper” and the ladies are perfect housekeepers who drink cups of “soy decaf cappuccino,” can be fairly disheartening. The decades have shown that, too often — as Virginia Woolf once predicted — women write about what goes on inside the houses, and men get to claim everything that goes on outside: building bridges and then blowing them up, seeking and providing oil for the lamps of China, going to war and making peace and then going to war again. It doesn’t seem fair.
“The Husband’s Secret,” by Liane Moriarty, has a pinkish cover that shows a rose blossom exploding — prettiness itself. And the heroines come straight from the women’s-magazine playbook. There’s Cecilia, the driven Tupperware specialist and mother of three. She keeps a perfect house but is tormented by the thought that her life is too narrow. (The magazine solution to this would be for the unimportant housewife to realize she’s actually performing a service of great significance to the world.) Cecilia’s handsome, copper-eyed husband, John-Paul, has been withholding sex from her, and he’s the one who has the secret — but it’s not what you think. Then there’s Tess, a career woman and mother with a husband named Will, who decides he’s in love with Tess’s cousin.
The setting is the St. Angela primary school in Sydney, in a tightly knit Irish-Catholic community. Cecilia and Tess went to St. Angela as kids; Cecilia’s daughters go there now; and when Tess leaves her husband in a snit, she returns to Sydney and enrolls her son. Everything would be fine except that the school secretary, Rachel, inspires a quiet horror in those around her. Her daughter was killed more than 20 years ago while still in her early teens. The murderer has never been caught.
So, 100 pages in, this women’s novel turns into a murder mystery. The man whom Rachel most suspects of killing her daughter is a balding PE teacher at the school. (Many of the adults in this book don’t seem to stray far from St. Angela.) Rachel obsesses on this hapless guy, who has his own reasons for feeling guilty. And, to thicken the plot, Tess, the career woman, meets an old flame and commences an intense affair. Why isn’t she more heartbroken about her husband taking up with her cousin? She asks herself that question from time to time, but the sex with her paramour is too good and she’s having too much fun.
Cecilia, whose husband has the awful secret, is crushed by worries, but every woman here is enmeshed in her own conflicts. Looking at a very worried Cecilia, Rachel wonders, “Marriage problems? Something to do with the kids? Rachel remembered all the time she used to devote to giant-
seeming problems about sex, misbehaving children and misunderstood comments, broken appliances and money.” But Cecilia is worried about something far more important, something that has caused her husband to give up sex for six months. (The one flaw I see here: Why doesn’t the guilt-ridden John-Paul just go to confession, receive his penance and have done with it?)
The question turns out to be how various crimes — from murder to bad manners to adultery and back again — can be recognized and suitably punished. The plot here swings along, with the details of women’s lives chronicled down to the last broken appliance and misunderstood comment. And murder, too.
See regularly reviews books for The Washington Post.