The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison
A silent wife is a gift from the Lord, and nothing can be traded for her self-discipline. Sirach 26:14.
For some reason, the church that married my husband and me offered this verse as one of our choices to be read during the ceremony. (Before your face cracks from smirking, let me just point out they offered this verse to everyone, not just me. Needless to say, my husband was delighted with this, and starts bellowing “Silent wife! Gift from the Lord!” whenever I’m right and he’s wrong about something.)
I don’t know if A.S.A. Harrison related the title of her novel to this verse or not. Tragically, she died just before the book’s publication in June 2013; she lived long enough to know that her book would be published by one of America’s pre-eminent publishers and that early critical reviews were glowing, but she never knew it would make the New York Times bestseller list, or garner more than 35,000 Goodreads reviews. I can’t find any online interviews with Harrison, but I suspect that this verse was the inspiration for the title. If there’s anything that Jodi Brett has in abundance, it’s discipline.
Jodi is a part-time psychologist living with her husband of twenty years, Todd, in a stylish and luxurious high-rise apartment on Chicago’s lake shore. Style and luxury are integral to Jodi’s life. She values order and beauty and calm. She only sees clients on a limited basis, leaving ample time for the industrious precision of her daily routines: grooming, exercising, reading, flower-arranging, shopping, cooking lavish, delectable meals. But within the first few pages, we learn that something will happen to threaten Jodi’s contentment, and as a result, she will commit a murder.
Todd, who lacks Jodi’s discipline, is a straight-up lecherous troll. He’s a perverted ogler and serial adulterer. He’s fantastically selfish. But Jodi knows this and tolerates his infidelity in silence, trading exclusivity for stability and comfort; she treasures the ease of her affluent existence too much to rock the boat. Besides, she employs her considerable self-control and intellectual prowess to rationalize her choices:
If she learned anything in school she learned this, courtesy of Albert Ellis, father of the cognitive-behavioral paradigm shift in psychotherapy. Other people are not here to fulfill our needs or meet our expectations, nor will they always treat us well. Failure to accept this will generate feelings of anger and resentment. Peace of mind comes with taking people as they are and emphasizing the positive.
She can live with Todd’s cheating. It is disorder that she cannot tolerate.
The novel alternates perspectives between Jodi and Todd, prompting the inevitable Gone Girl comparisons. But in The Silent Wife, it is a foregone conclusion that Jodi will kill; the suspense is generated in why and how she does it and whether or not she’ll get away with it. Harrison, the author, clearly had a keen understanding of human nature, taking the time to paint both Jodi and Todd with a thousand little brushstrokes of insight. Although none of the novel’s characters are likable, this isn’t a deal-killer for me. They are fascinating. And Harrison’s narrative is as meticulous and sumptuous as her protagonist’s designer clothes; every sentence is somehow both lush and spare, creating an atmosphere that perfectly reflects Jodi’s pristine but hollow world. By gradually recounting Jodi’s psychoanalytic training, Harrison reveals the horrible secret that has shaped Jodi into a brittle perfectionist; meanwhile, Todd manufactures his own comeuppance by engaging in a stupid liaison with a vulgar and demanding twenty-year-old.
The novel does drag in places, and I can see why many people were too repulsed by the characters to enjoy the book. But as a subtle, cerebral thriller, I thought it was definitely worth a read.
I’ll leave you with a little foreshadowing from the book:
It’s a known fact that in certain contexts people’s great strengths become their epic failings.