Angela was a young single mom running a successful Hamptons catering business when Jason Powell came along and swept her off her feet. Six years later, Jason is a best-selling author, media personality, and in-demand consultant, steering investors toward socially conscious companies while still finding time between engagements to teach economics at NYU. Angela’s son Spence attends an exclusive Manhattan school and calls Jason “Dad.” Angela spends her days being a wife and mother. “I was the planner in the family, the one with daily routines and a long list of what Jason and Spencer call Mom Rules, all designed to keep our lives routine and utterly predictable — good and boring, as I like to say.” The Powells are, by all appearances, the ideal family. Which, in the world of crime fiction, amounts to a target on your front door.
When a female intern accuses Jason of sexually inappropriate behavior, the boring life Angela has so carefully cultivated begins to disintegrate. Angela and Spence have secrets and a past she’s desperate to keep hidden. And as the investigation into Jason’s indiscretions deepens, and a second woman steps forward with even more damning allegations, Angela has to decide: to what lengths is she willing to go to protect herself and the ones she loves?
This is standard fare for the genre, a dilemma most readers will recognize from the jacket copy of some of their favorite books. And yet, The Wife is a standout. Alafair Burke has the intuitive ability to up-cycle genre trends, cherry-picking the best elements from an abundance of novels and current events, and then transforming them into something that still manages to feel wholly original. She is a master of her craft — which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows her background. The Wife is her 12th novel, 16th if you include the four she co-wrote with Mary Higgins Clark. Among those 12 novels are two successful series, one featuring a NYC detective named Ellie Hatcher and the other Portland Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid. Alafair Burke is the New York Times best-selling crime writer that other best-selling crime writers croon over. Each revelation hits its mark, every bread crumb is placed in the precise spot where its discovery will make the biggest impact, and when she makes the plot twist it is like watching a prima ballerina landing flawless pirouettes, one after another. It’s impossible not to feel a little thrill when, in the final pages, all those moving parts — means, motive, and opportunity — come together with a loud and satisfying click.
And in Angela Powell, Burke has created a complicated and conflicted character. The Wife is told using multiple points of view, but Angela is the only one who tells her version of events in the first person, at times breaking the fourth wall. She’s extremely compelling — even if, like all first-person narrators, we quickly suspect that her version may not be entirely reliable. Angela never lies to the reader, but her facts have all been carefully curated.
When autumn arrived, Jason asked us to move with him to the city. God, how I wanted to say yes. I was only twenty-four years old, and had only lived in two places: my parents’ house and a house in Pennsylvania I would have never gone back to, even if the city hadn’t torn it down. I had never really had a relationship with a man who had met me as an adult. I dated a couple of guys on and off who I knew from childhood, but nothing that would have ever led to marriage. The last thing I wanted was to be another generation of East Enders barely scraping by in life, especially when I wasn’t in love.
Here is a woman who loves her husband, is devoted to her son, relies on her mother, and is adored by her friends. Women will see, or want to see, themselves in Angela. Which of course is the point. She is supposed to be easy to identify with, to even feel a little bit sorry for. And as the plot unfolds, as we witness Angela’s actions and reactions, we’re meant to wonder what we would do in her place.
Detective Corrine Duncan supplies the novel’s second primary point of view. Her sections differ from Angela’s. For Corrine, Burke zooms out to the close third person. Tasked with following up on the escalating allegations against Jason, Corrine functions as the book’s naïve reader. Not being privy to Angela’s inner dialogue, she’s at a disadvantage, forced to work things out for herself. She is the novel’s central processor — finding clues, chasing down bits of information, and eventually putting it all together. She’s also the moral conscience of the story. When asked by the assistant DA about Jason Powell’s second accuser, a woman named Kerry Lynch, her answer is textbook SVU: always believe the victim.
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 that to admit the truth would be giving him permission for everything that happened after.
So what if she seems a little too tenacious for a NYPD detective with a full caseload? She, like everyone else in The Wife, has a part to perform in the puzzle Burke has so meticulously crafted. In many ways, Corrine is Angela’s opposite. She’s a single career woman who owns her own home in Harlem. She dates, but so far no one has stuck, a fact that doesn’t seem to bother her in the slightest. Her identity isn’t tied up in a partner or a child. She’s a good police detective. Thorough. And, perhaps most importantly, she’s less complicated than Angela. Her moral compass always points True North. Her focus is always on doing the right thing, and when the right thing isn’t readily apparent she will err on the side of caution rather than risk a moral misstep.
Corrine wondered which cases would continue to haunt her, years from now. She considered telling Hendricks not to kick himself, that every cop inevitably makes a wrong call. But she had no idea whether Hendrick’s was a good cop.
Interspersed among these two women’s narratives are police reports and emails between Jason and his lawyer (Olivia Randall, the protagonist of Burke’s previous novel, The Ex), the contents of which reveal important elements of the case (to them as well as to us) and serve as catalysts. They also supply, by default, Jason’s version of events — essentially his point of view, which is otherwise absent from the narration. Our relationship to Jason, like Angela’s, is kept in a perpetual state of flux. We find ourselves making excuses for him. We cycle between love and hate. We are never sure whether we can trust him, or which version of Jason — loving husband and father, sexual predator, unfaithful spouse — we should believe. What is conspicuously, and strategically, missing from this narrative are the voices of his accusers. One of the disturbing things about this book is how easy it is to credit an accused predator when his story takes center stage.
The Wife was written prior to the launch of the #MeToo movement (though of course the behaviors that the movement challenges existed long before it). So while it is tempting to tie Alafair Burke’s novel to that conversation — it’s not entirely fair. Both a whodunnit and a whydunnit, the challenge Burke poses isn’t to her reader’s intellect or sense of outrage. It’s to our basic understanding of right and wrong. If this thing happens, is that response now acceptable? What if the person is protecting the ones she loves? What if the person is protecting herself? Can someone be both a victim and a perpetrator?
Throughout The Wife, what Burke is taking measure of is our willingness to be complicit. So it pays to be vigilant … to be careful how you shift the weights and balances on your internal scales. Because the monster isn’t always some generic serial killer or bad guy — it’s not even the quiet guy next door who always keeps to himself. These days the monster is the person sleeping next to you. The monster might even be you. And suddenly you realize the book you thought you were reading isn’t the one you were reading at all.
Tara Cheesman is a freelance book critic and author of the blog Reader At Large.