The Secret Lives of Married Women by Elissa Wald

★★★★☆ (4/5)

And yet this happiness didn’t feel the way I’d always imagined it would. It felt fearful and precarious. As if it might be taken from me at any moment.

Contrary to the cover, this book is not erotic fiction. It is an incredibly thrilling ride into lives of two (or three so to speak) ordinary women, who occupy conventional spaces in their lives as wives, mothers, sisters and friends. They are to perfectly balance inner turmoil with adventurous exploits without losing hold of their sense of reality. The two novellas nestled within this one book deal with marital frustrations, anxieties of motherhood, and undisclosed fantasies which are sweetly attainable but would disrupt the quiet order of their lives. Secret yearnings especially of sexual nature can unravel their entire lives at a moments’ whim.

And suddenly from within me came a white-hot answering flash, like oil flung into a hot pan or the silver of a hooked fish catching the sun

This was my first brush with Hard Case Crime series, and much like the appeal of The Dorothy Project, I’m invested owing to the brilliant narration and story arc which kept me hooked. The book cover and title may appear misleading after having read the two entwined stories, but Hard Case Crime publishes stories of classic noir, dealing with adultery, murder, suspicion and sexual deviation. It is reminiscent of old-school paperback which lends the reading experience a tinge of delightful nostalgia.

Would it ever feel safe to savor these things, or would I always be waiting for that knock at the door, the slow whirl of red and blue lights in our driveway, the flash of a badge that would level our lives?

The Man Under the House

I hadn’t realized how much space this belief had occupied until it was suddenly dismantled

The first story revolves around Leda Reeve, a woman whose life has drastically changed since her marriage and subsequent motherhood. As a former libertine, adjusting to newly acquired roles as a wife and a mother seem slightly oppressive. She admits to having married out of mere necessity since she was getting on in age but also confesses to having eventually fallen in love with her husband Stas, a Russian refugee whose past is as undecipherable as hers.

This was something I never would have noticed. I could be close with someone for years and never notice what they drove, beyond a vague sense of its shape and possibly its color. Whereas Stas kept a vehicular inventory of his every casual acquaintance: the brand, the make, the year, how many miles it would get to the gallon

The story starts off with Leda and Stas moving into a new home in Portland, from New York, to settle into a proper house and start their life as a well-adjusted family. The house is in desperate need of repairs which is when Jack, a handyman working on their neighbours’ house, makes himself readily available to come to their disposal. He is eager to identify Leda from the past and presents himself whenever Leda is home alone. Her surreptitious past is at a threat of being disclosed to those she had long veiled her secret from.

Still, for accuracy’s sake you might say I often stopped, that I rarely went as far as I dreamed.

Jack becomes overbearingly intrusive and Leda decides to divulge her secret to her husband Stas. Soon after, Jack disappears and Leda begins to suspect her own husband of a grievous wrong-doing. Her apprehensions alter the nature of their relationship, from distance to intimacy, as she worries about their future together. Her scandalous misgivings make her question her present and future and can only be placated by knowing the truth of her husband’s action.

But when it happens, when you’re truly forced to revise the meaning of the clues you’ve disregarded, there’s no humor in it, only breathlessness and dread

Abel’s Cane

It’s like we’re one person split in two. I got the wildness, the darkness and the artistry. You got the credentials, the integrity and the sense.

Two stories of two different women are burrowed within this one novella which is narrated by Leda’s twin sister Lillian, a high-profile lawyer. She narrates the story of a client Abel and his working relationship with his personal secretary of sorts Nan. Nan was an orphan and brought up in a Convent amidst the stringy but modest and humble values embodied by nuns. As a young woman she became a professional submissive, offering her body for sexual pleasures for dominant men. Her work entails traits of her personality which have always come naturally to her – that of being of service to a man whom she cherishes secret admiration for.

She often felt hollow, transcendent, as if she were pure spirit and the pain was what weighed her to the earth. Other times, in a way that made no sense even to her, she felt hurt and close to tears. She felt pangs of aftershock, arousal, and bewildered grief all at the same time.

Abel Nathanson is a blind, non-profit industrial developer who hires Nan to read legal documents to him. Their relationship is symbiotic and professional but Nan begins to get much more invested in it than Abel who is a happily married man with an adopted child. Nan not only helps him with official work but also gets involved in assisting the Nathanson’s in their household chores. Soon Abel finds himself cornered by a rival developer and the case is bought to Lillian.

Amidst narrating Nan’s story, Lillian recounts her own experiences of a loveless and sexless marriage with Darren. Their inability to have children have left both reclusive in their associations with each other, and the act of copulation is scheduled and perfunctory, devoid of any pleasures. Here Nan and Leda’s past entwine to give Lillian a sense of sexual liberation which she had long ignored deliberately. Abel’s case takes a dark twist resulting in his acquittal and Lillian is reunited with her husband.

Moments like these come suddenly and without warning, adrenaline-driven and past all decision, where no resistance is possible, no sense of propriety can prevail

Concluding Thoughts

I’ve come to believe that intimacy is available to anyone who’s truly ready to give and receive it.

The two stories deal with women and their repression of desires – yearnings of sexual and psychological intimacy – in a patriarchal world. Two kinds of men exist in Elissa Wald’s world, those who nurture their women through providing order in their otherwise chaotic life and those who seek to upset the order primarily through sexual advances. Rae, a close friend of Leda is involuntarily attracted to a man who has done acts of extreme violence in the past and she is more than willing to forego his criminal actions owing to their wonderful sexual chemistry. Same is the case with Nan who is involved in submissive sexual acts with absolutely no regards for her physical integrity. Her relationship with Abel is beautiful and self-destructive at the same time.

After a while, I realized that the aura—an annoying, new-age word but I couldn’t find a better one—around Leda in the movie was something like the aura around Nan: a force field of whole-hearted focus, devotion, self-abandonment. Rapture.

For the reader, these stories may seem to make unlikely heroes of men who rose to an occasion just in time to rescue their women from adversity. But these tales are as much assertive of women who, despite the appeal of adventure and zeal to experience change, hold their moral and social ground.

But I told myself it was better if I went. I needed a visceral and immediate sense of the place, the better to glean the stray and unexpected details that were often the most effective.

This was a quick read with though-provoking substance as well as high entertainment value. Wald keeps our curiosity at bay, holding on to the final reveal till the very end. We anticipate a tragedy but rejoice at narrow escapes. We empathise with the characters and are uncomfortable with their predicaments. The author playfully tightens the reins around her heroines as well as the reader, sometimes relieving us with their happiness and at other times jostling us with shock. An overall engaging book which has made me want to read more from Hard Case Crime series.


More of my favourite lines

Characterisation

  • So far, I wasn’t afraid as much as jittery, skittish; Jack seemed more off-putting and overbearing than truly menacing
  • Until then, I’d thought that Bryce alone created the frisson in the office, but now I understood that Stas supplied an essential part of it as well
  • He was rootless, he could go anywhere.
  • I was elsewhere, on my way to a party. On arrival, everyone was sure to be carrying a piece of the awful world with him. Not one of us wouldn’t be smiling. There’d be drinks, irony, hidden animosities. Something large would be missing. But most of us would understand something large would always be missing.
  • Had the labored breathing of a smoker and his clothes, too, bore the scent of cigarettes.
  • In all the bewilderment, the vertigo, the upended perspective of a funhouse mirror, one lone conviction was still in place: Stas loved Clara
  • Her dark blonde hair, pulled back into an elegant twist and pinned in place with lacquered chopsticks
  • She read as if an oracle might be divined from the document if only it were rendered with enough care
  • It took stamina to plow through page after page, and stoicism not to betray a flicker of fatigue
  • Nearly every evening at this hour, a nameless sadness would threaten her with suffocation
  • In the social arena, so much physical contact relied on visual cues—intentions signaled in advance, consent sought and granted, as one person leaned in and the other bent in reception. Who would dare such an intimate gesture without implicit permission? Not Erica. So often, amidst these exchanges, Abel was set apart, an island—as if blindness warranted a kind of quarantine.
  • There are things too unbearable to think about, memories you can never let float into focus. Nan could barely bring herself to consider that day, and the terrible stilted awkwardness of the ones that followed, where she was unable to meet his sightless gaze and she knew things would never be the same

Beautifully crafted sentences

  • The kitchen faucet sprayed rivulets in all directions. The bathroom door scraped hard against the floor and the lock refused to catch
  • There was at once no time and nothing but time
  • There are three speeds in construction: slow, dead and reverse.
  • Relieved and restored and unburdened and bereft
  • Slavery made them graceful, light on their feet beneath that floor-length cloth, floating like dark swans in their bridal black
  • To waste the slightest amount was a sin against poverty.
  • Deirdre could always be counted upon to draw these lines, lest Nan start to feel like a part of the household.
  • And then, just as quickly, this dark thrill of recognition was displaced by professional assessment
  • The overriding aromas of disinfectant and leather couldn’t fully mask the more pungent ones just beneath: the musk of sweat, the gamy tang of struggle and tension and intensity.
  • As if its violence might be stayed with a show of passion.
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