There’s a telltale heart in Cecilia Fitzpatrick’s house, but it’s not beating beneath the floorboards. It’s lodged in a dusty box in the attic, inside a sealed envelope addressed to her in her husband’s handwriting and labeled To be opened only in the event of my death.
Does Cecilia, a generally happy Australian housewife with three young daughters and a booming sideline in Tupperware sales, shrug and put the letter back where she found it? Because this book’s title, The Husband’s Secret, is what it is (and because human nature is what it is), you know the answer, dear reader: She does not. And it’s a credit to the author, probably best known for her 2010 book-club favorite What Alice Forgot, that the secret hits as hard as it does when it’s finally revealed more than 150 pages in. Despite its awkwardly soapy title and pink-petaled cover, The Husband’s Secret is a sharp, thoughtful read — a sneaky sort of wolf in chick-lit clothing. It’s also darker and less whimsical than the twinkly, rom-comish Alice. Liane Moriarty weaves Cecilia’s story in with those of two other women in crisis: Tess, a Melbourne marketing exec reeling from a suddenly broken marriage, and Rachel, a widow haunted by the unsolved murder of her teenage daughter more than 25 years earlier.
But Secret isn’t all Down Under noir, either; even as these three women’s lives are blown apart, they still have jobs and families and mostly intact senses of humor, and they carry on. When Tess’ husband tells her that he’s fallen in love with her cousin, who is also her best friend, she can’t help thinking how much he looks like her 6-year-old begging for a contraband cookie. (” ‘Please, Mum, I want that sugary treat with all the preservatives and the cleverly branded packaging and I know I promised I wouldn’t ask for anything but I want it.’ ”) The beseeching eyes are the same: ” ‘Please, Tess, I want your delicious-looking cousin and I know I promised to be true to you in good times and bad, in sickness and health, but pleeeease.’ ” Moriarty ultimately can’t resist wrapping up her story lines with a bow that will probably feel too shiny and pink-petal neat for some. But you don’t need a husband or a secret to feel for her characters’ very real moral quandaries, and to want that shiny bow for them a little bit, too. A-