Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Tuesday, May 24, 2022: Maximum Shelf: Good Husbands

Park Row: Good Husbands by Cate Ray

Park Row: Good Husbands by Cate Ray

Park Row: Good Husbands by Cate Ray

Park Row: Good Husbands by Cate Ray

Good Husbands

by Cate Ray

Good Husbands, the new domestic suspense novel from Cate Ray (who's previously written under the name Cath Weeks), teases both allure and horror out of the old adage You never really know a person. There's a cruel but undeniable thrill in watching the three female protagonists of Ray's book discover, one by one, that the men they love might have done something unforgivable. "Men are the worst" isn't exactly a revelation in the #MeToo era, yet there's still something revelatory about how these three women come to recognize that the men they've married are not the men they thought they married at all. Any reader--regardless of gender identity--will wonder if they, too, are capable of being duped. And, if they can be duped, who else might fall victim?

That's the conflict at the core of Good Husbands: three English women--Jessica, Stephanie and Priyanka--each separately receive an unexpected letter in the mail, one that reveals a tragedy. Holly, the letter writer, is the child of rape, and her father--allegedly--is the husband of either Jessica, Stephanie or Priyanka. How does she know? She claims their husbands all assaulted her mother at a private club in December 1990, an event that derailed both her mother's life and her own.

Each wife reacts differently to the allegation, both in the immediate moment after reading the letter and also as the novel progresses and they dig deeper into the mystery. These varying viewpoints are purposeful: each represents a common response within larger society. One wife leans on "she asked for it" denial. Another toes the line between acceptance and disbelief, hungry for some objective truth. The third throws her chips in with the accuser, a "believe women" moment for the ages. All of them, understandably, are guilt-ridden and in mourning as their previously happy--or so they seemed--marriages are changed irrevocably. As they join forces and track down answers, they begin to ask themselves: How do you look at your partner the same way, knowing they're capable of such darkness? Or is everyone capable of such darkness? And, besides, what if it was all just a horrible accident?

In Good Husbands, readers will recognize plenty of callbacks to reality. In one particularly ripped-from-the-headlines moment, a husband blames "the PC brigade" for "getting to" his wife once she expresses her fury. Only when she threatens the collapse of their marriage does he himself crumple: "Don't break up our family. I love you, baby." Another husband employs a different, more manipulative tactic: "Haven't I been good to you? Haven't I cared for you and your girls--provided for you? I deserve a little loyalty, surely? You should believe me over anyone." These lines are painful, even grotesque, because they're familiar. These men seem incapable of truly understanding the harm they've caused, a theme many readers will find discomfortingly prescient.

Ray toys with these heavy themes without letting that weight overpower her novel. For all its intensity, Good Husbands is breezily written and dialogue-heavy, an ideal stay-up-all-night binge for domestic-suspense fans. It joins a cohort of recent thriller novels and television series that take an unsuspecting woman and force her to confront the misdoings of her husband, the person to whom she's tied her career, children and well-being. No, she didn't make the choices he made, the ones that created a crime. But she did marry him. She did, perhaps, make excuses for him. She did, maybe, turn a blind eye. So does that make her an accomplice? And how does she change, even if her husband cannot?

These are intriguing questions, challenging but not impossible to grapple with in commercial fiction. After all, fiction makes these questions open to greater, accessible debate; it's why television series such as The Undoing, Anatomy of a Scandal and Big Little Lies--all based on books--have succeeded. Ray understands something about these stories: they're powerful only because they're personal. By placing readers directly in the fallout zone of a sexual assault allegation, no one can look away unless they close the book. And who wants to close an addicting book?

Although Good Husbands isn't exactly a whodunit, it has the benefit of a surprising twist at the end. Ray, as she nears that ending, never loses sight of her protagonists' nuances; they are the ethical heartbeat of the book. Ray tries not to valorize Jessica, Stephanie and Priyanka. (Even the letter writer's own nuances are eventually laid bare.) Ultimately, Good Husbands is more than just a delicious thrill ride; it is a deeply thoughtful exploration of how a husband's transgression reverberates through his entire family. The complexities Ray explores here offer ample book-club material. --Lauren Puckett-Pope

Park Row, $16.99, trade paper, 416p., 9780778333203, June 7, 2022

Park Row: Good Husbands by Cate Ray

Cate Ray: Truth in Dispute

(photo: Paolo Ferla)

Cate Ray is the author of four previous suspense novels published in the U.K. under the name Cath Weeks. Her fifth novel, Good Husbands (Park Row, June 7, 2022), explores the reactions of three women--strangers to one another--when each one receives a letter alleging that her husband is the letter-writer's father, and that she is the result of a rape. Ray lives with her family in Bath, England.

When and how did you land on Good Husbands as the title for this book?

I'd like to say that I conceived this title, but I didn't! My brilliant editor and her team at Park Row came up with it and it just felt right the moment I saw it. It signals the fact that you're about to enter domestic noir territory, plus it practically begs for a question mark: Really? Good husbands?... a question that reverberates throughout the story.

The husband with skeletons in his closet has been a hugely popular figure in entertainment for quite a while now, with a particular explosion over the past few years with #MeToo. Why did this feel like an issue you wanted to address now, and why through these particular characters?

I think stories like this will continue to hound us until we address what they're trying to tell us: that we still haven't solved how to handle sexual assault allegations in a way that is conclusive, objective and fair to all parties. However, I didn't want to feature a court case but to focus instead on what people are saying and thinking in the privacy of their own homes. This isn't a story that's played out under the glare of the public gaze; rather, it's intensely personal, asking what you would do if no one were looking, or holding you to account. Not everyone makes the same choices in life, which is why I brought three very different women together to try to navigate their way out of a domestic nightmare.

Where did your idea originate?

I started writing Good Husbands in the autumn of 2019, after a specific incident sparked the story. I belong to a choir that meets at a local pub. One evening, I was waiting for choir practice to start, when a heated discussion about Harvey Weinstein broke out around the table. I was shocked by how strong the opinions were and how conflicted. The truth is that we don't all feel the same about rape allegations--far from it. I decided to write a story emphasizing how heated and divisive the subject is.

Why did you select a letter as the method by which these women would learn of their husbands' (alleged) assaults?

I chose it because of who Holly was--how I thought someone like her might deliver such a catastrophic message. She wasn't a modern girl, didn't even have a phone. She wasn't pushy enough to knock on their doors; she wasn't going to fire off an e-mail or WhatsApp message. So, a letter it had to be. Also, I think there's something almost passive-aggressive about letters. They don't open up dialogue in the same way that a phone call, e-mail or text does. There's no way to respond immediately. And in Holly's case, no way to respond at all.

There's a finality to her letter that draws a huge line under it. There's almost a legal "You've been served" aspect to it. Later in the story, one of the characters likens her letter to a hit-and-run incident. Quite apt, really.

Which of the three protagonists was the hardest for you to write?

I think I would have to say Priyanka because I was writing about someone from a different ethnic background. I feel that writers should be free to explore different voices, but I was very aware of cultural appropriation. I did a lot more research for her than with the other characters, whose backgrounds were more similar to my own. However, I was keen to represent diversity in my cast of women because the story is about how society chooses who to elevate and who to exclude, and how the wrong types of people are consistently left out of certain arenas.

Which was easiest?

Jess! She's so honest, filter-less. I didn't have to agonize over what she might say and do because she directed me, and I didn't ever have to worry about her offending anyone because that was the least of her worries. She puts the truth ahead of social niceties, making her a terrible guest at dinner parties. I can be a bit like her in that respect; something about the very nature of dinner parties seems to bring out the Jess in me.

Was it a challenge to detach your own feelings from this book? Or, conversely, did you draw deeply upon your own feelings to access that of your characters'?

The last thing I wanted to do was force my views or experiences on anyone. I wanted the story to flow organically and thought the best way to do that was to extricate myself from it. An author has to put a little of themselves into everything they write, but it's probably a mistake to draw from the self too much. You end up being too obviously affiliated to one character or viewpoint. Personally, I don't like knowing an author's politics, or worse--what they want the reader to think. But yes, I had to channel my own emotions in the characters' most intimate moments. It's this that makes characters real, I think, breathing life into them.

You've been a suspense writer for years now. In your opinion, what is it about domestic suspense, in particular, that intrigues and titillates so many readers?

I think domestic suspense is appealing because it's so relatable. The location isn't Mars; the characters aren't green, pointy-eared; they're living here and now, just like you and I. Yet the plots stretch the boundaries of plausibility, without actually breaking [them]. It's like allowing readers to test drive Formula 1 Ferraris that they'll probably never drive in real life. Or have dangerous affairs they'd never embark on, or make ghastly decisions they pray they'll never have to face. The story is close enough to their lives to be uncomfortable. And yet it's not them and they have the satisfaction of closing the book at the end and walking away.

What do you want from this book's reception? When someone puts it down, what do you want them to go out and do? If anything?

No one's asked me [this] before! I'd like readers to think about how they view other people--particularly women who make sexual assault allegations. Social media is exacerbating our tendency to make snap judgments, rather than considering all aspects of a situation. We'll only make progress as a society when we listen to each other, with empathy. That's my takeaway message. And if I get just one person to stop before saying but she asked for it! then I'll have done my job. --Lauren Puckett-Pope

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