by Alafair Burke
Readers who enjoyed Alafair Burke's 2016 crime-thriller The Ex for its sharply-drawn main character, hard-fighting high-profile trial attorney Olivia Randall will be pleased to know that she makes a return appearance in Burke's new book, The Wife. Readers who were kept eagerly turning pages by Burke's thriller-writing expertise will likewise be pleased to know that their author hasn't lost a single step: apart from a slightly querulous opening couple of pages, The Wife is a perfectly-choreographed sequence of plot twists designed to make it virtually impossible to stop reading. And readers who finished The Ex wondering if Burke could manage yet again to write an entire book in which all of the main characters were thoroughly, deeply unlikable will be – well, maybe not pleased? But surely intrigued? – to know that at no point in The Wife will they be even remotely tempted to like any of the characters who keep the plot moving. By the end of the book, they'll be hoping even the 13-year-old kid somehow gets the electric chair.
The story jumps off when Burke – with a not-particularly-suppressed authorial glee – takes a storybook marriage and proceeds to fritter it apart like a wilting and despised New Year's Christmas Tree. Angela Mullen was a caterer at the Hamptons when she meets NYU economics professor Jason Powell, who surprises her by enthusiastically courting her, marrying her, and bringing her and her son Spencer to live in Manhattan, where their financial situation improves stratospherically when Jason writes a pop-economics volume that becomes a runaway bestseller. They buy a carriage house in the city, enroll Spencer in a swanky private school, and name-drop chi-chi restaurants until you want to dunk both their faces in their cacio e pepe.
Angela had survived a horrific trauma when she was younger, and when we meet her she'd “spent the last twelve years putting one foot in front of another to prove that what happened in the past didn't matter.” Now she's a big fan of boring, reassuring stability – so her trouble-sensing antennae are instantly alerted when her husband offhandedly mentions having received a sexual harassment complain from one of the interns at the consulting service the runs when he's not teaching at NYU. The young woman, Rachel Sutton, claims Jason was lewdly suggestive to her in his office, and at first her complaint seems to go nowhere – and threatens to take the novel with it. “We've all read this book and seen this movie before,” Burke writes, “a potentially great man struck down by the lingering shadows of a scandal ...” – which is the problem: we all have seen this book before (as the book puts it with supreme cynicism, “Bill Cosby. Trump.”). As the heat turns up under Jason's idyllic life and as another woman comes forward and as the voracious media begins to dig into Angela's own past, the plot verges on the predictability that's always the main enemy of any crime thriller.
Burke does her best to stave it off. She introduces a bit of corporate skullduggery that complicates Jason's social-justice crusader image, and she charges the book's second half with a murder. And by far the most effective bit of interest she introduces to her narrative is Detective Corrine Duncan, who doggedly investigates the steadily-darkening case and whose humor and likability always comes as a breath of fresh air whenever she appears. Even when Burke is using her to deliver the book's (mercifully minimal) exposition, it's more interesting than the narcissistic whining of the Powells:
You know how it is. The stories never line up. No one's version is ever a hundred percent accurate. The hard part is figuring out which parts are wrong, and more importantly, why they're wrong. Bad guys out-and-out lie because they're trying to protect their asses. But victims? That's trickier. Some of them almost apologize for the bad guys as they're reporting the facts, because they're full of guilt, blaming themselves. Or they mitigate the awfulness of what happened to them, because the full weight of it would kill them if they stopped to absorb it. Or they say they didn't drink, or didn't flirt, or didn't unhook their own bra, because they're afraid to admit the truth would be giving him permission for everything that happened after.
The fact that a secondary character is the empathy-highlight here is of course a weakness in an otherwise-sleek novel. The turmoil the Powells undergo – particularly Jason (“Try to remember that you know me ,” he pleads with Angela in one of the book's most compelling moments, “You're finding out every horrible thing I've done during our entire marriage, all at once. I know it's terrible, but I'm still me. I'm still in – a hundred percent with you – if you are”) – isn't ever as interesting as the hasty banter between Detective Duncan and ADA Brian King, which would be fine if they were the book's stars but is a bit of a problem when they're not. The same goes for the no-nonsense Attorney Randall.
Burke is a veteran hand at keeping her readers on tenterhooks despite such basic shortcomings, and it's entirely possible that her book's slyly subversive ending actually depends on the callow tedium of her main characters. In any case, The Wife is an even more effective potboiler than The Ex and every bit as stylishly produced by the folks at Harper. It'll leave readers hoping that Randall, Duncan, King, et al assemble again the next time a ripped-from-the-headlines scandal rocks New York City.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.