Monday, March 29, 2010

Bridget Asher writes about what it means to have a second chance

I am not sure where I stumbled upon this novel, but I decided to give it a try. It tells the story of an already-married young woman who poses as the wife a single friend. That is the premise.

The Pretend Wife

Bridget Asher’s The Pretend Wife (304 pages, Bantam, $15) is based on a simple premise. The heroine Gwen Merchant is more or less happily married to Peter, an anesthetist. Gwen worries that there might not be enough love in the marriage, but her friends all tell her she’s crazy, and she herself feels that there is really nothing to complain about.

This is the background for her meeting up with Elliott Hull, an old college friend, briefly a boyfriend, who is now a professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, where they all live. She is charmed to meet Elliott again, and she is a little shaken because she finds him attractive and intriguing. When they talk, Peter is with her, and it is Peter who invites Elliott to join them at a party they are going to.

Gwen was not so sure she wanted Elliott at the party, but then he saves her life when she almost chokes on something she is eating. Afterwards, in a grand gesture of thanks, Peter offers to give Elliott something he really needs. What he needs, it seems, is a wife to present to his mother, who is dying of cancer.

Peter volunteers Gwen for this role, and the rest, as they say, is history. Gwen falls in love with Elliott all over again, and at his mother’s weekend lake house, where they are perpetrating this charade, she finds she loves everyone: the mother herself, Vivian, who challenges her to “tell the truth”, Elliot’s sister and her two charming children, the house itself, the lake, everything.

In spite of the intense bonding with Vivian, the wonderful times with Bib, Elliott’s niece, and her loving moments with Elliott, she decides that she must go back to Peter and her normal life. When she does this, though, she also determines to get to the bottom of her mother’s death in a car crash many years before—her father, a biologist, has been grieving for years—and to work out something about her marriage by figuring out her relation to her mother.

This works well. Her father sees how needy she is and shows her her mother’s many boxes of knitting that have been hidden since her death. The knitting inspires her to ask further about her mother, and as she comes to a clearer understanding of that woman, she also understands more about herself.

The novel deals with some of the dissatisfactions of marriage and the loss of parents extremely well. It does fairly well in creating the romance between Gwen and Elliott, too. But as the plot heats up and all the conflicts rev up into high gear, the novel falls a little flat. The ending is more or less what one expects, but the novel seems to rush to get us to the end. Some of the short cuts are not really convincing.

I won’t go into too many details, because the novel is worth reading through to the end. Some miracles are more believable than others, though. Perhaps the ending feels inevitable, but it’s hard to imagine that it would be as easy to get there as Gwen finds it.

Bridget Asher is a talented novelist, and this book will win her many readers. Let’s challenge her, as she has her characters challenge one another, to “tell the truth.” A richer novel would surely be the result.

Bridget Asher

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