I finished reading The Husbands by Chandler Baker days ago. Until now, I have been unable to write my review; at the same time, however, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about The Husbands. I was totally unfamiliar with Chandler Baker; I belong to a book club for which I read the book. Reese Witherspoon calls Baker’s writing “honest, timely, and completely thrilling.” Sally Hepworth, author of The Good Sister, describes Chandler Baker this way: “Chandler Baker, queen of the feminist thriller, has delivered once again! The Husbands is a poignant exploration of what it would take for women to have it all.” I take exception to both of those esteemed women’s views.
Hepworth’s description took me aback when she used the word poignant. I questioned her use until, to remind myself of the word’s exact meaning, I looked it up: “painfully affecting the feelings; deeply affecting; designed to make an impression.” Other words in the definition include piercing, touching, and cutting. Generally, I use poignant when I mean touching—in a way that brings emotions to the surface.
The Husbands has certainly made an impression on me. I also found it piercing and cutting—as to the bone! However, the feelings the story evokes in me are not pleasant or ones I wish to focus on. In fact, the story has left me completely discomfited. This feeling has persisted for days after I finished the book.
Now, one could say, a book that causes such a reaction has done its job. I suppose in some measure that is true. What is it about The Husbands that is so disconcerting to me? In the explanation, readers may find a spoiler. I pride myself on being able to write reviews without spoilers, but this time I may be out of my depth, so be forewarned.
The Husbands features Nora and Hayden Spangler, a young married couple both with demanding careers. Nora and Hayden are expecting their second child, so they need a larger home. Nora finds a house for sale in Dynasty Ranch, “an exclusive suburban neighborhood.” After touring the home, Nora is completely sold on it because it meets all the criteria she has set for their new home.
After the Spanglers tour the home in Dynasty Ranch, Nora, an attorney, receives a call asking her to represent Penny, a homeowner in Dynasty Ranch. Penny’s home burned killing Richard, Penny’s husband, who was home alone at the time of the fire. The thought is that some inherent problem in the building of the home caused the fire and ultimately Richard’s death.
Thus, Nora becomes entangled with Penny and several other high-powered women who live in Dynasty Ranch, particularly Cornelia and Thea. Nora recognizes Cornelia and Thea along with all the other wives of Dynasty Ranch, have something she strongly desires: help from their husbands. The husbands pack children’s lunches, do the grocery shopping, cook, clean, and support their wives in their careers all the while working in their own demanding jobs. Hmmm.
Nora feels particularly stretched thin as she works to make partner in her law firm, care for her daughter, keep a home, and be a wife. She finds herself nagging Hayden to help. When he does help, he will do ONE thing and then proudly tell Nora he followed her directions. It doesn’t take long to see the tension between the two with Nora feeling she is in charge of EVERYTHING while Hayden does one tiny chore. She is grateful that Hayden does not call caring for Liv, their daughter, as babysitting. He does know better than that!
The question remains then. Why do the women like Cornelia and Thea have such extremely helpful husbands? Nora notices that the men often repeat the same sentence: “[wife’s name] works so hard.” Max, married to Alexis, tells Hayden, “There’s a great website that you should check out. It’s called Coming Clean. It gives all of these fantastic tips on organization and housekeeping. I live by it.” Other husbands in Dynasty Ranch chime in to say they also “live by” the site. Hayden is a bit taken aback.
Okay, so no spoilers, but suffice it to say that as Nora investigates the fire at Penny’s home and Richard’s death, she begins drawing some really dangerous conclusions. Then she and Hayden have couples’ counseling with Cornelia which also leads Nora to other suspicions about the people of Dynasty Ranch.
Something utterly sinister is afoot in Dynasty Ranch. In the end, Nora figures it all out and chooses to avoid the home in the upscale neighborhood; her backing out of the neighborhood also disturbs me because of the circumstances that readers will have to discover for themselves. However, another one of the most discomfiting parts of the story to me is that Nora retains some of what she has learned from her experience with the women in Dynasty Ranch. I did NOT like that part at all and felt it made Nora completely dishonest.
Be warned that The Husbands will likely cause readers some discomfort.