Dark, Feminist Suspense in "The Husbands"

The Fiction Addiction

The Husbands(novel cover art from the publisher)

The Husbands, by Chandler Baker, imagines a twisted, devious response to a common problem. Nora is overwhelmed with working her job, caring for her child, and somehow also doing all the housework and home management work. Hayden's not a bad guy, Nora keeps reminding herself. So if Nora will just remind him when it's time for a task to be done, outline the steps he needs to do and remind him in a voice that's not frustrated or hostile, he's happy to help.  And Nora keeps focusing on that -- that her husband's not a bad guy, even as she finds herself with more work and more responsivities. There's the weaponized incompetence of his help, when he just doesn't know how to do things! She's just so much better at it! And Nora makes the choices that so many women do... until the successful wives of an upscale neighborhood show her another way to live.

The central premise of The Stepford Wives seemed to be, what if women didn't have all those annoying personalities and emotions, and just existed to serve their men? In The Husbands, the motivation comes from what if a man noticed when he tossed his underpants kinda sorta near the hamper? For his wife to pick up, and wash, and dry, and fold, and put away. And what if he picked up his own dirty underpants? What if he took a turn doing the whole household's laundry? Without being asked or nagged or begged?

The year of work-from-home has really highlighted how many men come home from work ready for relaxation and recreation, and how many women leave work, pick the kids, pick up just one or two things needed for dinner and breakfast, clean up form breakfast, start dinner (or beat themselves up over wasting money on takeout), throw some laundry in, etc.

I've written here before about how romance and twisted love rarely works as a compelling thriller motivation for me. (Just dump him! Move on! Ugh.) I usually enjoy twisted friendships or dysfunctional families a great deal more. Nora's situation in The Husbands works because she's not motivated by obsessive love, she just wants her husband to notice that chores exist. She wants out from doing a paid full-time job and then another one at home, and how do you not sympathize with that?

As The Husbands unfolds, Nora sort of overlooks that there may be something a little bit too effective happening in her couples therapy.  There's some real plausible deniability, because the goal of the counseling is getting more help from Haydan, and anyway, he's not doing anything completely wild or dangerous. One standout moment for me was when Nora's husband saw something on their shared family calendar and acted on the information, instead of just assuming that Nora would take care of it. It's such a small thing, but it shows that he's completely different now. Nora notices that the other husbands are quick to pick up the kids or fix dinner, too.  Again, it's always a small thing, just like women often end up picking up the endless small tasks, but as the story unfolds, these tiny moments add up to a sinister suspense story. These high-powered, upscale wives have developed a devious solution to their shared problem, resulting in such a wonderfully dark and suspenseful novel. 

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