Mensch or Masher?

An uncanny timeliness to Alafair Burke’s new thriller
Alafair Burke Deborah Copaken Kogan

“The Wife”
Alafair Burke
Harper, $26.99

The first thing that hits you upon opening “The Wife” is its uncanny timeliness. Angela’s husband, a charismatic economics professor at N.Y.U., Jason Powell, is accused of sexually inappropriate behavior by a college intern. The book came out soon after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke and the #MeToo movement started and focuses on many of the same questions that until that moment had simply been swept back under the proverbial rug.

Jason is not only charismatic, he is a kind, gentle, and honorable man, and we don’t want to believe he could have done this. Nor does his wife, whom Jason met and then married when she was a struggling single mother working as a caterer in the Hamptons. He loves her and her son and has done everything to protect them from a tragic event in her past.

So is the intern lying? Should we assume she is telling the truth because so often women have not been believed? Was it just a misunderstanding?

But just as we see, with some relief, that the action appears to be moving toward the “misunderstanding” scenario, a much more serious allegation comes along, one of rape, from a business colleague, Kerry Lynch. Will Angela continue to believe in her husband? (While the reader is privy to information that seems to point to Jason’s innocence, she is not.) And while she may be willing to believe him innocent of rape, will she still want to stand by him when it comes out that he has been sleeping with Kerry — whom the police wish to question but who seems to have disappeared? Will this marriage survive? Will poor, loyal Angela survive? Will Jason the mensch survive? Is he really a mensch?

As the police detective, who will methodically and quietly maneuver her way behind the scenes through this novel while much sturm und drang goes on front of stage, says, “You know how it is. The stories never line up. No one’s version is ever a hundred percent accurate. The hard part is figuring out which parts are wrong, and more importantly, why they’re wrong. Bad guys out-and-out lie because they’re trying to protect their asses. But victims? That’s trickier. Some of them almost apologize for the bad guys as they’re reporting the facts, because they’re full of guilt, blaming themselves. Or they mitigate the awfulness of what happened to them, because the full weight of it would kill them if they stopped to absorb it. Or they say they didn’t drink, or didn’t flirt, or didn’t unhook their own bra, because they’re afraid that to admit the truth would be giving him permission for everything that happened after.”

Like a game of pass the parcel, as the story progresses, layer after layer of the past, and the truth, is revealed. Except that further layers will reveal that the past is not quite what we have been told, and the truth becomes less and less easy to assess.

One of the complications is that Jason is not just a professor; he is the author of a best-selling book and a regular talking head on television with a quarter of a million followers on Twitter. Inevitably the case receives extensive media attention, and that is what Angela dreads. For years she has managed to keep hidden a hideous event that happened to her when she was still a teenager. Now it looks as if this might be revealed and her life will be further turned upside down. The book asks a worrying question: If you suffer through a traumatic event, do you recover? Or do you just think you have recovered?

Ms. Burke writes gracefully and fluidly, and her characters spring quickly to life and involve you in their lives, to the extent that you have to restrain yourself from nervously skipping ahead to see what happens. 

As I had in both “Gone Girl” and “The Girl on the Train,” what I felt while reading “The Wife” was foreboding. You keep hoping for a happy ending but you fear you are not going to get it. You have to keep reading — you’re involved with the characters — but part of you is awaiting the arrival of some metaphorical zombie apocalypse.

Did you play naughty kitty as a small child? A classic grandmother’s game. The small child holds out a hand and granny strokes it gently, “Nice kitty!” And again, “Sweet kitty!” “Loving kitty,” “Darling kitty,” and so on. But somewhere along the line the stroking hand will give a slap, “Naughty kitty!” The little moppet yelps but is hooked — and must play again, and again, breathless with tension, until Granny hands the by now thoroughly overexcited child back to his or her mother.

That’s “The Wife.”

“Entertaining kitty!” “Articulate kitty!” “Engrossing kitty!”

Slap!

“Naughty kitty!”


Sheridan Sansegundo, a former arts editor at The Star, lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Alafair Burke’s previous suspense novel was “The Ex.” She lives part time in East Hampton.