Once again, I find myself of two minds about a Sarah Pinborough novel: like the previous one I read, Behind Her Eyes, this book focuses on quite unlikable characters – and there is a lot of them here – while offering an intriguing story that is part mystery, part social study and part romance, with a dash of voodoo superstition thrown in for good measure. It’s this apparent lack of focus on a specific theme that mostly baffled me, making me wonder more than once whether the author was unsure about the kind of story she wanted to tell: in the end, of course, every apparently scattered piece of the puzzle falls into place and delivers an intriguing ending, but for me the journey was a difficult one, a fact that somehow soured my enjoyment of the overall story.
Marcie Maddox is a younger second wife: her husband Jason took her away from a life of hardship and launched her into the high society of Savannah, where Marcie did everything in her power to be accepted by the closed circle of the town’s elite. When Jason’s older partner, widower William Radford, comes back from a European vacation with a new wife who soon becomes the center of attention, Marcie’s world feels endangered: Keisha is young and attractive, and Marcie soon notices that Jason seems inclined to flirt with her, which raises all sorts of alarms for Marcie, who knows better than anyone else how easy it is to steal another woman’s husband…
This is just the premise of a story that becomes more and more complex as we get to know the main characters better, and moves slowly but surely toward the uncovering of the web of lies, deceit and secrets underlying what looks – on the surface – like a perfect, carefree world. As I said at the beginning there is not a single one of the main characters deserving of sympathy: Marcie hides a shady past which hangs over her like a cloud, and for this reason she tries very hard to fit in into Savannah’s society, even though she’s younger than the other wives in her circle and secretly despises them for their “old matron” attitude and the skin-deep goodness exercised in charity work and soup kitchens for the poor. Keisha comes from an underprivileged family and wants to escape both their poverty and their psychological hold on her: her marriage to William is the ticket for the new life she wants, but she can hardly wait for her aging husband’s demise to enjoy newfound freedom and prosperity to the fullest.
The men fare little better, what with Jason not being a model of honesty and integrity – and as the story moves forward we discover more unsavory truths about him – and William being prone to sudden mood swings that soon reveal an overbearing attitude and a cruel streak targeting Keisha just as much as it did with his previous wife, whose presence seems to hang still in the house, very much Rebecca-like. The secondary characters, mainly the wives, spend most of their time by shopping, being pampered in beauty parlors and indulging in gossip, portraying a kind of lifestyle that feels so empty and useless that it’s easy to wonder whether it’s a worthy exchange for all the material comforts they enjoy.
Where the characters did little – if anything – toward my enjoyment of the story, I very much appreciated Pinborough’s description of the sultry Savannah background, plagued by an oppressive heat that seems to weigh down the overall feeling of uselessness and despondency in which the characters look mired. And of course the slow unfolding of the buried secrets and the sequence of quite unexpected twists and turns peppering the final part of the novel helped me better appreciate a story with which I struggled a little, particularly in its middle, although – when all is said and done – I have to admit I expected something more, or something different. Or both.
Still, I have not given up with Sarah Pinborough’s works, because her narrative style is one I find quite compelling, so my hope is that this was just a “hiccup” down the road and that the next book will prove nearer to my tastes.