Book review: Marriage and secrets

Nicky Pellegrino ponders a novel that asks: How well do you know your partner?

Lucie Whitehouse's latest novel explores the divide in a marriage that "appears" normal.
Lucie Whitehouse's latest novel explores the divide in a marriage that "appears" normal.

How well do you really know the man you are married to? Has that mild-mannered fellow you've been with for 20 years, who does Sudoku on the toilet and is addicted to Storage Wars, based his entire life with you on secrets and lies? Um, well, probably not and the heroine of Lucie Whitehouse's latest novel, Before We Met (Bloomsbury) doesn't think so either. At least, not at first.

Hannah Reilly is a career woman who has thrown in her life in New York for love and marriage to good-looking British businessman Mark. Now settled with him in his flash London house, she is struggling to find a job and adjust. On a rainy night she heads to Heathrow Airport to collect him from one of his regular business trips to the US and he doesn't get off the flight. Worried, she tries to contact him but he fails to respond to his cellphone or emails. When finally Mark does get in touch it's with a plausible enough story of a missed flight and lost cellphone.

Then he goes silent again. Hannah can't find him at any of his usual hotels and his assistant is no help because she believed her boss had taken his new wife on a surprise trip to Rome.

That's when Hannah has the first flickers of suspicion: is Mark telling lies, could he be having an affair?

She starts to dig into his life and soon finds he has closed his savings accounts, liquidated investments and borrowed money against the house without telling her. Then she checks her own bank accounts and discovers they have been cleared out.

As she tries to piece together what has been going on, Hannah begins to realise how little she knows about her smart, successful husband of eight months. His parents are dead and he is estranged from his brother; the friends of his she has met are relatively new ones, he doesn't encourage conversations about the past. Who is he really?

The first part of the story is all about the slow seeding of doubt and fear. We're inside Hannah's head and piecing everything together with her. But the pace ratchets up as she begins to uncover the things Mark hasn't told her and fair zooms along to a dramatic climax.

"Marriage thrillers" is what novels like this have been dubbed. It's a genre made popular by Gillian Flynn's mega-bestseller Gone Girl and, judging by the similarities in cover design, its publishers are hoping this book will appeal to the same market. Unfortunately, it suffers in comparison.

It's not as twisted or as twisty; its characters are less likely to surprise you, it's simply not as finely tuned or as complex.

Before We Met is still a page-turner, however; a chilling and disturbing one that delivers thrills and spills enough and should keep you guessing to the final pages.

Will it make you question how well you know your own spouse? I doubt it but it may leave you feeling that a little predictability isn't such a bad thing.

- Herald on Sunday

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