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FICTION

Book Reviews: 'The Last Secret' and 'Laura Rider's Masterpiece'

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By Ron Charles
Wednesday, April 15, 2009

THE LAST SECRET

By Mary McGarry Morris | Shaye Areheart. 274 pp. $25

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LAURA RIDER'S MASTERPIECE

By Jane Hamilton | Grand Central. 214 pp. $22.99

If opposites attract, then these two novels about adultery make a weird couple. Mary McGarry Morris and Jane Hamilton are critically acclaimed writers who've also been blessed by Oprah, but their new books offer entirely different views of the aggrieved wife.

"The Last Secret" would be another (!) depressing story of a woman discovering her husband's betrayal, but Morris pumps that old tale full of adrenaline by running a wicked psychological thriller in the background. She signals her approach in an explosive preface that takes place more than two decades before the rest of the novel: Seventeen-year-old Nora has run away with a manipulative grad student who wants her to lure men into their car to rob them, but the scam immediately goes bad, and her boyfriend beats their first john to a pulp with a pipe.

When Chapter 1 opens, Nora is a mother of two teens, married to the charming publisher of a New England newspaper. A well-known figure in the town's social and charitable circuit (marvelously satirized), she's on the board of a Catholic home for battered women. But suddenly her perfect life is rocked by the revelation that for four years, her glad-handing husband has been having an affair -- "a relationship" -- with Nora's best friend.

What follows is a painfully insightful depiction of the disorienting effects of such betrayal while husband and wife attempt to preserve the theater of a successful marriage. "Pretending to be happy," Nora laments, "takes enormous energy." The tension stays tight across every page, as we follow Nora's thoughts: "Her sense of time is skewed. . . . It's like losing a basic faculty, taste, smell, touch; everything seems unremarkable." What's worse is Nora's corrosive need to know everything, every painful detail, a compulsion that of course never brings her any satisfaction and only aggravates her suspicion, which "bleeds into guilt."

Morris is sharpest in her portrayal of Ken, the sensitive, modern husband who freely discloses his betrayal, asks for forgiveness, even cries a bit, and then gets indignant when Nora doesn't move on. It's a bitter critique of the narcissistic confessional culture, with its naive faith in talk therapy and forgiveness. In a particularly galling scene, Ken tells Nora that "as long as they were being honest about their feelings, then she has to know that her recrimination only wears him down, day after day, grinding away at him. Guilt isn't his strong suit. . . . He resents her distrust." You can feel millions of betrayed wives reaching for his throat.

In the middle of this domestic crisis, Nora's murderous old boyfriend tracks her down, and not just to reminisce about good times. He's a truly frightening character, and Morris stirs the terror by doling out only glimpses of his psychotic behavior. It all leads to a propulsive climax that makes this sensitive work of literary fiction also incredibly exciting. (Don't wait for the inevitable movie version because Hollywood will never preserve the ending's unsettling ambiguity.)

Meanwhile, "Laura Rider's Masterpiece" -- designed to look like a little 1950s romance novel -- is Jane Hamilton's foray into comedy, a surprising departure from her well-known "A Map of the World" and "The Book of Ruth." In this case, adultery isn't revealed to the unsuspecting wife but rather engineered by her in a misguided attempt to practice her writing skills.

While Laura Rider dreams of being a novelist, she runs a successful nursery with her husband in Wisconsin. Because they have no children and Charlie is so dazzlingly handsome and sensitive, everyone in town assumes he's gay, but actually, Laura assures us, he's a superhero in the bedroom. After 12 years of marriage, though, "Laura had become permanently tired of his enthusiasm. . . . She couldn't bear the thought of any of it, the rattling of her bones, the jarring of her brains as he shook not only the bed but the foundations of the house." And so, they remain happily, platonically married.

Their (unbelievably) stable arrangement is disrupted when they meet Laura's hero, Jenna Faroli, a Milwaukee Public Radio celebrity. Laura has projected fantasies onto Jenna Faroli the way the rest of us idolize NPR's Terry Gross: sensitive, insightful, brilliant. Laura hyperventilates when she meets Jenna at the garden club, even though Jenna is disappointingly frumpy, like most radio celebrities. (Sorry, Terry.) In that moment, Laura realizes that she wants to write a novel "about a plain woman who becomes beautiful. A story that finally discovers what a woman needs and wants." Jenna will be her heroine, she decides, and Laura's gorgeous husband will be the man "who can meet those requirements." Moving around these people in her real life will provide her with the material she needs for her book.

Hamilton stays high above all these characters, subjecting each in turn to her light satire. Amateur writers, along with the whole universe of advice books, workshops and conventions, also come in for some sustained ribbing, as though Hamilton were venting the frustration of a thousand tedious bookstore readings and summer writing seminars. It's a comedy, yes, but a meta-comedy, a romance novel that's very self-consciously about the nature of romance novels and the romance of writing.

Hamilton has cleverly replaced the opening and slamming doors of a sex farce with the opening and closing of e-mail messages. Throughout the affair that she orchestrates, Laura monitors the lovers' "endless kissy-face" e-mails and jumps in now and then with her own notes disguised to look as if they're from Charlie. "One of the unexpected perks of the project," Laura thinks, "was the fact that she felt closer to Charlie than she had in a long time, the two of them merged into the single character who is Jenna's pen pal." The only question is how many lives she'll ruin with her artistic pursuits.

To the extent that this romantic intrigue is funny, it's also surprisingly sophisticated and frequently creepy. Hamilton's sharp eye for the private quirks of married life has always been a little unnerving, and now it seems odd that she didn't drop more wit into her previous novels. A cynical friend of Jenna's claims: "No one cares about adultery anymore. . . . The end of shame means the novelist no longer has a subject. The novel will die as a result." These two very different books suggest he's wrong on all counts.

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