How to Be a Good Wife, the debut novel from British-born Emma Chapman, who now lives in Australia, is sure to appeal equally to thriller fans and readers who love Kate Chopin's The Awakening with its portrait of a housewife on the brink of either sanity or madness, depending on whom you believe.
Middle-aged housewife Marta has few memories predating her marriage to Hector. Her adult life has consisted entirely of seeing to his comfort as instructed by her mother-in-law's wedding gift, a manual entitled How to Be a Good Wife ("Catering to his comfort will give you an immense sense of personal satisfaction.... A good woman can be judged by the neatness of her dress and how well her children behave"). On the surface, Marta is the picture of domesticity, loyal to Hector and devoted to their grown son, Kylan. However, as the reader learns more, Marta appears increasingly unstable, forgoing her prescription medication--allegedly in hopes of regaining more of her memory--in favor of blackouts and hallucinations of a little girl who is sometimes clean and cheerful, sometimes filthy and violent. Has her narrow domestic sphere left Marta vulnerable to what Hector insists is her fragile mental state, or has the absence of pharmaceuticals cleared the fog obscuring a more sinister truth in their marriage? Is Hector a long-suffering husband who protects Marta, or a master manipulator hiding a secret so terrible it would shatter their family forever?
Chapman keeps readers firmly planted in Marta's point of view, unable to distinguish truth from delusion. Nor does she ever simplify the matter: whatever the cause, Marta is not sane and the reader cannot trust her. Her isolation from anyone outside her immediate family creates an echoing lack of objective witnesses.
Though the surface matter deals with mental illness and reliability, Chapman silently but effectively criticizes enforced domesticity as well. Readers may see all too clearly the benign incarceration of a woman dependent entirely on her husband and treated as too delicate to make her own choices, or even go into the city alone. Although elements of the story suggest a mid-20th-century setting, Marta's situation could just as easily happen in the present day.
Readers will find themselves confronting their own biases about mental illness as they struggle along with Marta to make sense of her tense, troubled world in this subtle feminist thriller. --Jaclyn Fulwood
Shelf Talker: This understated thriller will keep readers guessing at the truth behind a mentally unstable woman's seemingly ordinary marriage.