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It's Always the Husband


It's Always the Husband

The friends we make in college often stay friends for life, for better or for worse. That’s the case for Aubrey, Jenny and Kate, three young women thrown together as roommates at tony Carlisle College (a thinly veiled Dartmouth). Aubrey is a poor kid from Las Vegas whose smarts have propelled her into the Ivy League. Jenny is the serious local striver determined to make good. And Kate is the glittering star of their freshman class.

Jenny and Aubrey can’t help but get pulled into Kate’s orbit. Beautiful, rich and the life of every party, she knows all the hottest guys on campus, has a seemingly endless supply of drugs, and can whisk her friends off to her family vacation house in Jamaica at a moment’s notice. Aubrey adores Kate, who offers her a glimpse at a life she barely knew was possible. Jenny is a bit skeptical. She immediately pegs Kate as flighty and selfish, but even she finds herself tangled up in her roommate’s drama.

And oh, is there drama. At first, it seems like the normal turmoil of late adolescence. Kate is barely speaking to her father and stepmother. A crisis at home sends Aubrey off the rails. Kate starts sleeping with Jenny’s ex-boyfriend, driving a wedge between the roommates. But in the hothouse college atmosphere, young lives start to spiral out of control, until a fateful May night when tragedy strikes and someone ends up dead.

"[T]he twists and red herrings keep the pages turning. In the end, the truth comes out, but justice is a trickier question when everyone, victim included, ends up seeming a little bit guilty."

The accident (or was it?) on the abandoned bridge over the Belle River changes the course of each woman’s life. Twenty years later, when all three friends find themselves back in the small town where they went to college, there’s another tragic death, and the investigation into what happened reopens old wounds and threatens the fragile bonds between friends.

Michele Campbell’s debut is a skillfully executed whodunit where virtually everyone is a viable suspect. All the characters have a good reason for wanting the victim dead, and most have the moral flexibility required to have pulled the trigger, so to speak. Anyone looking for an obvious hero in this book is going to be disappointed, as will those who expect their murder mysteries to kick off with an actual murder.

The first half of the novel --- which flips back and forth from the past to the present day --- is all character study, not crime. Campbell, a former federal prosecutor, has a knack for the sharply observed social detail, as in the scene where Jenny, during a dinner at Kate’s Park Avenue penthouse, carefully spoons her lobster bisque “as the etiquette manual she had pored over in preparation for this trip instructed.” But her real focus in these early chapters is the nature of friendship, and how it can be both exhilarating and toxic.

Kate is the classic “frenemy” --- charming and generous when she wants to be, but more often capricious and self-involved. “Everyone thinks it’s a privilege to get abused by Kate,” says Aubrey, who’s blindly loyal to her self-described “best friend,” until, suddenly, she isn’t. Kate’s friends may put up with her bad behavior, but they’re not exactly innocent victims. As this troubled triad’s story unfolds, it becomes clear that everyone involved has a dark side.

The action picks up in the book’s second half, once a second body turns up and a murder investigation is underway. At this point, we’re in standard thriller territory, with a dopey, obsessed local cop determined to discover the truth and the titular husband, who’s naturally the prime suspect. The two halves don’t quite jell as Campbell tries, not always successfully, to yank her characters into middle age. Decades of secrets and lies have kept them trapped in the past, and as result they have an infuriating tendency to behave like spoiled teenagers.

Still, the twists and red herrings keep the pages turning. In the end, the truth comes out, but justice is a trickier question when everyone, victim included, ends up seeming a little bit guilty.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on May 19, 2017

It's Always the Husband
by Michele Campbell