Sunday, September 21, 2014

How To Be a Good Wife: A Novel by Emma Chapman - Review

How To Be a Good Wife is a haunting debut novel from Emma Chapman.  It is the kind of book that zips by because you are so completely engrossed in the story and are wondering just where it is headed.  I would sincerely recommend carving out an evening to dedicate to this book because I think it has a story best told in one sitting.  I gave it a four star rating on Goodreads.

In the opening pages we find the good and dutiful Marta trying to fill her days with something to distract her from missing her son, Kylan.  Marta and her husband Hector have been married many years and she is finding the adjustment of moving from a life as a doting parent to an empty nester hard to navigate.  In an effort to control and change something about her circumstances she stops taking the medication she has used for years, and when she does so, begins to question her life and memories.  Everywhere she looks she sees visions of young girl who is begging for her attention.  The girl causes her to question her sanity, and the truth of her life and her past.

The title comes from a book given to Marta by her mother in law on her wedding day.  Words from the tome are repeated in Martha's mind whenever she completes a simple task.  Advice such as "Always put the needs of the rest of the family above your own" and "Take small mouthfuls of food, like a baby bird, and make sure to chew daintily with your mouth closed" inform her every waking moment.  When she comes to a startling realization mid-book, she struggles to find her way out of the doctrine of behavior she has always followed and to recover the self that she lost in the process and hopes that the girl she once was is not lost to her forever.

I don't wish to give away any more of the plot, but I must say that I was moved to tears several times in the reading of this book.  There were so many wonderful descriptions that caught my attention.  Ms. Chapman has a knack for detail and vividly creates the scenery of Marta's world from the fjords and snow drifts to the scratches in the tabletops of her captive home. I love when authors can so accurately describe a flavor or put extraordinary details into the environment of the book in this way.  I was dreading Hector's first taste of the overly salted soup at the dinner party - never did a written spoonful cause me so much anxiety.  I was also rewarded with the knowledge that the instruction manual on wifery was there early in the novel as a protection of sorts for Marta - her ingrained recollection of these rules and decrees on attaining perfection sheltered her from the disapproval of her husband and kept her from the pain it could have brought her.  All of these details lit up the novel and made it memorable days after reading it.

When you finish the novel, you can visit the How To Be a Good Wife website and join in a discussion about who in the novel is to be believed.  It is a fun interactive experience and I was surprised at how many people had differing opinions about the outcome of some of the novel's events.  Personally, I think a smile and a shovel can hide most anything.  You can also follow Emma Chapman on Twitter and let her know if you enjoyed her book.

When I first heard of this novel, I had seen it recommended as "for lovers of Emma Donoghue.." and being that several of Ms. Donoghue's novels are favorites of mine, I was happy to explore an author who had a similar voice.  If you liked Emma Donoghue's Room, then I think this book would be enjoyable to you as well.  I look forward to new offerings from Ms. Chapman in the future, and hope that I have the opportunity to read more work from her very soon.  Thank you to Picador books who provided me with a hardcover edition to read and review and to the Shelf Awareness website who called my attention to this lovely author.

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