When you have a book that is such a hit as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was last year it is natural that publishers and readers want to hunt out the ‘next Gone Girl’ as it were. The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison, who sadly passed away this April, has been heralded by many as being that book, the cover glimmering with wonderful quotes from Kate Atkinson, Tess Gerritsen, Sophie Hannah, S. J. Watson and S.J. Bolton, Hannah even saying it is even better than Gone Girl. Quite some praise there from some of my favourite authors. The question of course was before I started the book was could The Silent Wife live up to it?
Headline Books, 2013, paperback, thriller, 384 pages, kindly sent by the publisher
Jodi Brett and Todd Gilbert seem like the perfect couple and have done for over twenty years. She the beautiful house proud psychotherapist and he the property developer, they are both high achievers. However every couple has secrets behind the facade and in the case of Jodi and Todd it is the fact that he goes and has many a dalliance, because he simply cannot be faithful, and Jodi accepts it and lives with it as he always comes back. Yet Todd has recently met someone who is different than the rest and things could go horribly wrong for Jodi as his common law wife, as we discover from page two things will go wrong ‘given that a few short months are all it will take to make a killer out of her.’
Unusually that makes The Silent Wife less of a whodunit and more a mixture of a whydunit and when-gonna-do-it which I don’t think I have come across in a novel before and so from the start gave it an edge. It is also quite a risky move as from the outset the reader knows what is coming… or do they? For one thing that Harrison does prove good at is switching things on you when you are least expecting it.
What Harrison also does which is risky is make both her lead characters rather unlikeable. Todd is just pretty repugnant. A man living on credit to the max, yet acting like he is rolling in money and splashing it about, who will pretty much shag anything but come back to the woman who makes him divine meals and then occasionally puts out too. Yep, a complete letch, a clever move though as I was desperate to see him slaughtered. Jodi herself is more of a mystery and an enigma. Initially we see a strong woman wronged. Yet as we get to know her she becomes slightly more intriguing, why does she get so obsessive about how our pasts and youth affect us for example? Also we get to see a darker side now and again, as if the aforementioned hint of her killer nature at the start wasn’t enough, we learn that while she may appear fine with Todd’s wandering pants there is an icy rage and eye for small but important revenge on occasion.
The next day opens with a series of misadventures. To begin with he gets to work at his usual early hour only to find that one of his keys – the one that opens the street door – is missing from his key ring. Stranding on the sidewalk with his mobile phone he curses when he fails to connect with the janitor. He doesn’t know how this could have happened; keys don’t detach on their own from a steel ring. He nonetheless walks the three blocks back to his Porsche to search the seats and floor and then calls Jodi, waking her up, to ask if she’ll have a look around at home.
It is the dislikeable nature of the protagonists and the breakdown and secrets behind a relationship plus the fact it’s a thriller that bring the comparisons to Gone Girl. Yet the comparisons do a disservice to The Silent Wife in many ways. Firstly because The Silent Wife is, no pun intended a much quieter book and all the more real for it. The breakdown of the relationship is one that we hear about all too often and is therefore something we completely believe in, and the way Harrison writes about it is spot on.
Secondly, deep down, there is a very dark subject going on linking to the characters pasts. The book looks into how our parent’s relationships affect ours with our partners both for the good and the bad as we try to learn from what we liked, and indeed, didn’t like about their partnership. It also looks at the things that we like to hide, even from ourselves, and that inevitably no matter how much something is hidden cracks will start in the foundations of that secret, deeply hidden as it may be, that will eventually reach the surface. This is explored in Jodi’s job as a psychotherapist, and that practice seemed to me another subject up for discussion, as well as with Jodi herself.
Gerard grew in her esteem, became an anchor that kept her stable in unchartered waters and also, in a way, her muse. A nod, a word, a gesture from Gerard could be a marker and a prompt. His dependable squint and mellow vowels were co-conspirators in the enterprise of drawing her out. Even the room itself, the neutral colors, the uniform light, and the quietude, with only an occasional burst of voices from the hallway or a distant bump or thump of a door closing, but muffled, as if underwater, could turn the crank of her memory, take her back to the jurisdiction of her earliest years, bringing them once again to life.
In those aspects the book is possibly better or equal to Gone Girl, as the narrators there both have ‘pasts’ yet sadly for me a few things really let The Silent Girl down. I loved the back story of Jodi, but the more I read it the more I thought ‘no, this woman wouldn’t settle for Todd no matter how wonderful he was’ and I couldn’t believe in them having got together and having been that happy for so long as he really is that vile. I was also sad that actually this back story didn’t get built up, it’s all very vague and mysterious (which I know is part of building the mystery) yet it seemed a little ‘tacked on’ which leads me to the major issue I had with the book. The ending.
Without giving away any spoilers I have to say that I felt cheated. I had been sold something from the start that wasn’t the case at all. Whilst I could see the merits of this, and sorry if you haven’t read the book but should you choose to you will understand, as a double/triple/quadruple twist (there may be a red herring there) I get really cross when an author at the end of a thriller throws in an element that no one in their wildest dreams would guess. It’s fine if clues have been dropped and you get it wrong, that is part of the fun, yet here I felt cheated – yes it was possible but I didn’t feel the author was playing fair, she didn’t want us to get it and that to me spoils/spoilt the fun.
I don’t normally compare books as closely as I have this with Gillian Flynn, but because of all the chatter I couldn’t not. I feel bad being negative about some of the aspects of The Silent Wife as up to about 50 pages from the end I thought it was a rather good portrayal of a relationship imploding and indeed a well written and overall well paced thriller. Alas the ending just didn’t work for me and I didn’t buy the mega twists and I just felt a bit cross – I am clearly in the minority as all the authors I mentioned above loved it and Nicole Kidman is making the movie, so what do I know?!? It saddens me that Harrison will not write anymore; as at its best moments there is something very different about The Silent Wife that makes me think whatever followed would have possibly been incredible.