Constant Reader Book of The Month Club: March 2023
Good Husbands by Cate Ray
Reading Good Husbands the exceptional thriller by Cate Ray, I could not escape the memory of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives. This 1949 comedy-drama in a sense was about the title subject: three wives receive a letter from a fourth woman (never shown, perhaps never even named) who says in the opening sentence that by the time they read this, she will have run off with one of their husbands. The movie unfolds in flashback through the marriages of all three women as they consider where their husband is the one who did so, and more importantly how well they knew him or even how secure their marriage was.
Good Husbands operates on much the same forward structure: the action is propelled by three London wives who each receive a letter from an unknown woman and the message within thoroughly upends everything that they thought about both their husbands and their marriages. But the letter is not a message from the present but rather the past — and also beyond the grave.
Holly Waite writes three women and tells them that thirty years, her mother was raped by three men and these men were her husbands. Her mother became pregnant as a result of this assault and Holly is the daughter of one of them. Her mother never recovered from the assault and nine years earlier died from an overdose. Holly claims she is dying herself and tells the women that she couldn’t die without justice being done or the women knowing the truth. She also sends them an address of a storage locker which has what amounts to all her possessions — and where we eventually learn was her home for much of her life.
The three women couldn’t be more different. Jessica is in her mid-forties, does publicity for a firm that nurtures artistic talent, and considers herself ‘completely average.’ She has a young son and considers her marriage a happy one. Priyanka is ten years younger, of Indian descent, and is the second wife of her husband. She has a four year old, who was a difficult labor and is a high school teacher. (Ironically, the day after she received the letter, she is giving a class on consent. Stephanie is married to a man a decade older than here, cold and austere, with little warmth of any desire to move upward.
All three initially react to the letters with various forms of denial. Jess keeps looking online to see if there’s any way her husband could know these men; Priyanka feeds it into her husband’s shredder, and Stephanie just puts into a cocoa tin after reading it. Jessica turns out to be the one to initiate contact with the other women, and while Priyanka reluctantly agrees Stephanie has to be dragged kicking and screaming the whole way. (The only reason she doesn’t walk away the first time is because Jess threatens that she’s going to go to the police.)This pattern continues throughout the novel, Jessica is the reluctant leader, Stephanie keeps pushing against any action and Priyanka continues to waffle, though she’s usually on Jess’ side.
Eventually they do go to the storage unit and learn that Holly is dead. When they open the storage unit they find lots of Holly’s artwork — she was a struggling painter — and a diary that turns out to be from Nicola. The diary tells Nicola’s life at university and is very vague until one night she is entranced by three men going to the Montague Club, an upper echelon men’s club that these days only seem to still exist in England. The diary tells the story of how she followed them, how these men gave her false names and how one night under the influence of alcohol and cough syrup, she was gang raped by the three of them. One of the last entries shows her trying to confront these men and how all three deny any responsibility.
Now I will become vaguer about what happens. Jess and Priyanka are appalled by what they read and what has happened to both Holly and Nicola as a result. Stephanie spends the bulk of the novel utterly refusing to accept either any part of this truth and then still trying to somehow to blame the victim. ‘Naïve child, What did she expect?” she tells us after reading the diary.
Stephanie’s passages in the book are by far the most interesting. She spends most of the novel resisting any kind of action by Jess and Priyanka, ostensibly because she thinks there is no point to it but more because “she’s afraid this will destroy our lives.” By this point in the book, the reader is very aware of just how horrible Stephanie’s marriage to Dan is. Her husband is a bully who treats both her, her daughter Georgia and the two daughters of his previous marriage utterly horribly. Georgia has a crystal clear picture of what a monster her father is, and Stephanie keeps defending Dan no matter what. Stephanie has weekly meetings with her children every week, and its not until Georgia screams it in her face that the reason she clings to them is that she has no friends. Stephanie has more reason to believe of the three that her husband is capable of the violence Nicola has accused her of, but spends much of the book saying that it happened thirty years so what good what it do? Stephanie is a child of poverty whose mother was neglectful and whose father was abusive. She is willing to sacrifice anything because she believes anything is better than being poor.
Priyanka is more open to action and yet just as resistant. She is the only one who confronts her husband outright about the possibility of the accusation and is shot down incredibly quickly. Much of her job involves working with teenagers and she knows first hand just how dangerous alcohol is — she has a tattoo on her wrist that she never remembered getting. Yet very quickly she becomes aware as to just how much the justice system is weighted against the accuser rather than the accused and that is when these cases are fresh in the minds of the public, never mind thirty years old. Only when she learns the truth about the exact reason her husband’s first marriage collapsed so quickly is she propelled into action.
Jess is the leader among the group, a position she does not relish. She seems to believe almost immediately that her husband is capable of what he did, even if she can’t admit it to herself. Every step forward is basically taken by her and she keeps having to pull Priyanka and Stephanie with her. She eventually decides to reach out to Nicola’s roommates and it is what one of them ends up telling her — and that roommates utter denial of responsibility when it comes to helping her and even blaming Nicola — that forces her to take action that eventually has consequences not even she can foresee.
If it were just the story of these three women, the fact that the damage of a sexual assault has collateral damage decades after the victim has died, and just how these men views things even after the fact, Good Husbands would be a brilliant and stunning read. But the thing is, after what seems to be the climax of the novel, there are still thirty pages to go — and in those pages we get the biggest shocks of the story and something that makes us completely reconsider why this letter was sent in the first place.
You see, the question that all three women keep asking themselves throughout the book is why did Holly send this letter now? Why did she never confront any of the three men before all this and try to get either justice or recompense? Why did she only decide to come forward when she know she was going to be dead when Jess, Steph and Priyanka got the letter? At a critical point in the book, when a critical part of Holly’s story is revealed to be a falsehood, they all wonder about this. I wasn’t sure I understood even after finishing the novel — and indeed, I’m not entirely sure I would have gotten it had my edition not included what amounted to a Book Club discussion of its own that stated one of the facts outright.
Some might consider that the final revelation is one that is done solely to cast aspersions on a woman who has not done what she did for some kind of justice or public good but for a purely selfish reason. I don’t agree. I think that Ray is actually doing something to flip our sympathies by using a trope that so many sexual assault and rape defenses end up using over time. Why did the victim come forward now? Did she have some kind of ulterior motive? This is the kind of lawyer’s trick that so many of juries by into with famous defendants even though there are so many reasons why women wait so long to come forward when it comes to accusing powerful men.
Ray in Good Husbands clearly wants the reader to reflect that there might very well be a one in a million that chance that this is why the victim comes forward years later. Don’t misunderstand; by this point the guilt of the husbands has clearly been established and none of them even bother to claim innocence when they are finally faced with it. And by this point, the reader knows that at least in the case of Stephanie, this was a truth she needed to face if she was ever going to get out of the psychologically damaged marriage she and her children were in. And Nicola Waite clearly deserved some kind of justice for what these men did to her.
The thing is, none of that is why Holly Waite wrote the letter and started everything. In the final pages, Holly speaks from beyond the grave. I won’t tell you what she says but while she expresses remorse, she does not feel guilt even now. At one point, one of Nicola’s roommates tells Jess that Nicola ‘was out for herself,’ and while that wasn’t true of Nicola, it is clearly true of Holly in this case. She makes it very clear that she was a manipulator and user and justice and enlightenment had nothing to do with why she told them.
In the last sentence of the novel, Holly tells us that she has achieved her life-long dream and it is ‘every bit as sumptuous and bittersweet as I imagined.” We all say we will do everything in our power to realize what we want. Good Husbands tells us as much as anything else how far some of us will go for it. Does that negate what happened to her mother? No. But the reader might find themselves wondering if what happened to the three women in this novel was worth the price of Holly’s decision.