The War of the Wives
by Tamar Cohen
I was intrigued by this book from the synopsis and I am left feeling very smug that I know myself well – because I loved it. It isn’t perfect but it is gripping and thought-provoking, and story and character are equally strong.
To save you even having to read the blurb, the tagline on the front of this book tells you all you need to know (when did books start having taglines? Is that a thing now?): “At your husband’s funeral you don’t expect to discover his other wife.” So it’s about grief, lies, family, bigamy, but also modern life in London and how change can make you realise what kind of person you are.
The storytelling is narrated alternately by the two wives, Selina and Lottie. Initially there’s a little bit of stereotyping. Selina is well off, uptight, a kept woman who keeps her very nice, very big house in Barnes in impeccable order and doesn’t check the price tag before buying yet another cashmere coat. She was married to Simon for 28 years, they have three children, aged 17 to 26, and while there’s not really any passion left she still loves her husband. She worries about ageing, her children’s choices of partner and why her youngest son insists on eating junk food.
Lottie is artistic, but illustrating children’s books isn’t making her a living so she also has a job she dislikes in a hotel. She lives in a flat in North London with her and Simon’s daughter Sadie, who is 16 and very difficult. She and Simon were married 17 years and they were still very passionate about each other, though they had money troubles and they fought a lot.
Cohen takes as her structure the five stages of grief. So the wives’ hatred of each other and what Simon did really comes to the fore in the “Anger” section. And the book inevitably wraps things up in the “Acceptance” section. Which was where, looking back, I feel a little disappointment. A lot of mysteries turn out to have been red herrings, which I should have seen coming when a potential major storyline just didn’t go anywhere. But what this does is keep the focus on the families, which is definitely Cohen’s strength. That and her fantastic turn of phrase that can combine urbanity and sentiment in clever, often comic, ways:
“I know how you can think you know someone, really know someone, only to find the person you thought you knew turns out to be a hollow timber structure with someone entirely different inside – a plastic wheelie bin of a someone.”
I liked the depiction of the children through their mothers’ eyes. I liked the way the women developed from the stereotypes they saw each other as being into complex, interesting characters. I liked the ultra-current setting – not just Twitter and Facebook but also preparations for the London 2012 Olympics – but I do worry that it will date the book quickly. I suppose that’s a decision the writer and her editor have already made.
The main flaw, I would say, are the prologue and epilogue, which is a shame because they are the first and last impressions. I found the epilogue especially jarring and completely lost my hold on the fictional world I had until then been enjoying thoroughly. But the rest of the book is good enough to forgive the slight lapse.
This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.
Published 2012 by Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld Publishers.