Marta Bjornstad never knew she was a smoker, but here she is, in the middle of the day, with a cigarette in her mouth. She knows, according to the book given to her by her overbearing mother-in-law when she married, that she should be making fresh bread for her husband, Hector ("Make your home a place of peace and order."). The book, How to Be a Good Wife, has guided her through 25 years of marriage, raising their son and running their house. It's been a life lived on an even keel…but that is about to change.
With her son, Kylan, grown and moved to the city, and Hector working as a teacher, Marta finds herself with time on her hands. She found the cigarettes today in her purse and was disoriented to discover some were missing. She doesn't know if she's the one who smoked them or not. She knows Hector blames her restlessness on being faced with an empty nest. He tries to make sure she takes her pills; he doesn't suspect that she’s not swallowing them.
"HOW TO BE A GOOD WIFE is a lightning-fast, irresistible read --- mostly because once a reader has fallen into Marta's life, she can't quite force herself to close the book until she has read another chapter, followed by another."
As she smokes, she notices a shadow across the table. A small, feminine hand with nails bitten to the quick reaches toward her. Marta automatically offers her cigarette, but the hand vanishes. She is in a reflective mood as she gazes at her wedding photo. Oddly, her memories are foggy, and she can't truly remember how she met Hector. He has told the story of their first encounter --- that they met on holiday when he saved her from drowning --- so many times that she takes it as the truth. However, it seems odd that she can't really remember their meeting.
Marta moves on now, to her display of china dolls. Hector has given her one for every year of their marriage. She notices now that her favorite, a blonde with gray eyes, is facing the wrong way. As she pulls on gloves and turns the doll, Hector walks in. He has no afternoon classes. It has seemed, for some time, that Hector is slipping away from Marta, which is one of the reasons she secretly quit taking her pills. Maybe she can rid herself of her foggy numbness and actually feel again. Now, as Hector slips a pill into her mouth, she pretends to swallow it.
After driving into the village through the Scandinavian countryside, Marta returns home. She sings along with the car radio, then realizes she can't be singing. Her mouth has been closed the entire time. Yet she hears a voice. As she drives up to her house, she sees a woman wearing her own red apron carry a toddler out onto the porch. It is the first of many sightings of a young blond woman. What does it mean? It seems as if Marta is starting to remember her earlier life, but are these memories? Are they hallucinations? Are these sightings and emotions related to her not taking her pills? Is she crazy, or is she coming back to life?
HOW TO BE A GOOD WIFE is a lightning-fast, irresistible read --- mostly because once a reader has fallen into Marta's life, she can't quite force herself to close the book until she has read another chapter, followed by another. Marta is an unusually complicated character. I found her to be a not entirely sympathetic narrator, yet I did sympathize with her. I could not relate to some of her actions and decisions, but I could also see the reason behind most of them. I wondered at the truth of some of the things she relays, and yet I found her plight to be truly terrifying. Reading this book filled me with apprehension, and that queasy/uneasy feeling didn't end when I finished it.
Emma Chapman’s debut is highly recommended for fans of very dark psychological thrillers who don't need their stories tied up neatly.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on October 16, 2013