52 Books by 52 Women: The Secret Lives of Married Women

I’m not sure how this happened. I had a perfectly respectable book lined up to follow last week’s reading of Kindred as part of my 52 Books by 52 Women challenge. I was all set to read Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Mistress of Spices, because I figured a book by an Indian author set in the East Bay would be right up my alley. And I started reading it, but man, I just did not like it at all. The faux-mythic self-description of the first-person narrator, the sentence fragments, the aversion to question marks—I just found it all tedious and off-putting.  (I hadn’t liked the movie much either, but that wasn’t necessarily an indication of how much I’d like the book; I mean, The Age of Innocence was a lousy movie but a good book.) So I figured it just wasn’t my time to read this book and picked something else up.


And somehow that turned out to be The Secret Lives of Married Women. I’d picked up the book at the library a couple weeks ago because I sometimes enjoy suspense stories and Hard Case Crime tends to be a reliably better-than-average publisher of contemporary work with an old-time pulp sensibility. I’d particularly enjoyed Christa Faust’s Money Shot and its sequel Choke Hold, and that was an author I’d been completely unfamiliar with before I was drawn in by the lurid covers (all Hard Case’s covers are sensationalist homages to old pulp paperbacks), so I figured what the heck , I’d check out another random book by another one of their unknown-to-me authors.

The Secret Lives of Married Women is written by Elissa Wald, who according to the cover also wrote a book called Meeting the Master, so while I didn’t know what to expect from this book, I speculated there might be some spanking involved.

At first I didn’t like the book all that much. Wald’s prose is very straightforward and utilitarian, making me feel like I was wasting my time on a cheap potboiler. Not much time, as it turns out, because by the same token it’s an awfully quick read, and it soon sucked me in on the basic level of just wanting to know what was going to happen next.

The setup sounds at first like the premise of a porn story: There’s a discontented housewife and new mother, a scolding and emotionally distant husband, and an over-friendly handyman who works next door and keeps sniffing around the couple’s new house. But this guy, Jack, is actually pretty creepy, coming into the house uninvited all the time, and wife Leda is increasingly scared of him, not turned on at all. Finally she tells her Russian immigrant husband, Stas, about Jack’s forward behavior, Stas goes to talk to the guy, and Jack disappears, even from the house he’s working on next door.  What happened to Jack? Did Leda’s unassuming techie husband kill the guy? The more she thinks about it, the less sure she is that she even wants to know.

There’s a lot of back story in there about how Leda and Stas first met, in big expository chunks because a chatty friend of hers wanted to hear all about it, and a little about Leda’s abandoned career as an actress.

Just as the story seems to be getting interesting, there’s a sudden resolution, and then it’s over. The thing is, I’m only halfway through the book. If I’d really read the back cover, I would have seen that it says it’s about two identical sisters with very different lives. And the thing is, Leda’s sister Lily does show up very briefly in the story, but not so you’d notice.

The second half of the book is Lillian’s story, at least nominally. It’s actually mainly about Nan, a young woman who used to be a professional submissive and left that job to go work as a reader for for a blind developer, Abel. Although there’s nothing sexual going on between them, Nan gets off on serving Abel, working gruelingly long hours gladly, even voraciously. When Abel’s wife gets injured in an accident, Nan moves in with them to help out around the house.

There’s never any suspense that Nan’s suddenly going to do something to Abel’s wife to get closer to him or anything like that. She’s too submissive for that, and the last thing she wants is any kind of promotion, personal or professional. She just wants to serve.

Abel, meanwhile, gets caught up in a sting operation, entrapped into accepting personal contracting work for a family member in need on the government’s dime, and that’s where Lily comes in. She’s the lawyer Abel hired to defend him, and she hears Nan’s story while working on the case.

This story switches back and forth between first-person chapters from Lily’s perspective and third-person chapters about Nan’s experience, but Nan is very much the central character. Lily’s narrative is about what hearing Nan’s tale awakens in the high-powered attorney, as well as finding out about a soft-core flick her sister made years ago, and how they make her reexamine her own rather businesslike sex life with her husband. (They’re trying for a baby.) This is the story that comes closest to the kinkiness suggested by the cover, but even so only a little. This isn’t erotica or anything like that, but because of the subject matter there are one or two erotic scenes (let’s say one and a half).

I don’t know that I’d particularly recommend this book, but the character portrait of Nan was compelling enough that I’m not sorry I read it either. That in itself is a good thing, because at first I was really wondering if this week was going to be a total loss.

After finishing this book, I started trying again to read The Mistress of Spices, and it just wasn’t happening, so that one’s officially off my to-read list. I’m again in the situation of reading a few pages of one book and a few pages of another, seeing which one really draws me. I think I know what next week’s book is going to be, but I’m not going to say yet because that could change (and it’s a pretty big book, so if I’m going to start it I’d better mean it). There’s nothing wrong with a little mystery in life, after all.

Books read in the challenge so far:

Week 1: Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

Week 2: Octavia E. Butler, Kindred

Week 3: Elissa Wald, The Secret Lives of Married Women

About author

No comments yet.

Be first to leave your comment!




Your comment:

Add your comment