Reviewed by Harriet
A couple of years ago on Shiny I reviewed Laura Wilson’s The Wrong Girl. That was a tense psychological thriller centring on family relationships, and so, in a sense, is this one. It’s certainly a page-turner – I whizzed through it in record time – but it’s in a very different mode. I was laughing in delighted horror all the way through – yes, it’s a real black comedy.
Sophie Hamilton has an enviable life. A happy marriage, three gifted and delightful children, a beautiful country house, a yacht, and three cars (one for the au pair). Together with a friend, she runs a classy boutique in the nearby village, while her husband Leo spends most of the working week at their London flat. She’s certain that her large circle of acquaintances will be thrilled to hear about the family’s latest achievements, and she makes sure they do hear about them every year as Christmas approaches, when she sends out a round-robin letter along with the cards:
We were on tenterhooks waiting for Alfie’s A-level results, but we needn’t have worried – four A*s. He’s got into his father’s alma mater, Cambridge – Economics at Clare, if you please – but he’s having a gap year first, travelling the world. At the moment he’s in America, and he plans to go to Borneo in the new year to work on a marine life conservation project. He’ll also get a British Sub-Aqua Sports Diver qualification. Poppy continues to excel at school, passing all her exams with flying colours. She’s doing well with her music too, and is now, aged eleven, the youngest member of the school orchestra…
We’ve all had these, and most of us will have dismissed them with a slightly irritated chuckle. But for two years now, one letter has been returned to Sophie anonymously with a rude scrawl on it. ‘YOU’RE SO BLOODY PLEASED WITH YOURSELF’, the first one read, and the second, the following year, was just as bad. This year, nothing arrived after Christmas and Sophie breathed a sigh of relief. But then, in March, comes the worst of all:
spewed across her neatly typed Christmas letter in frenzied red capitals was: LEO AND I HAVE BEEN HAVING AN AFFAIR FOR OVER TWO YEARS AND NOW HE’S GOING TO LEAVE YOU. LET’S SEE HOW SMUG YOU ARE THEN, YOU STUPID BITCH.
Sophie is devastated. Leo has always seemed to be the best of husbands, attentive, affectionate, a great father to the children. Admittedly he has seemed to be a little preoccupied lately, but Sophie has never dreamed that he might be unfaithful. Now she is wracked with doubt and misery. She hasn’t shown the previous defaced letters to Leo, and she’s certainly not about to show him this one. Instead, she decides to do some detective work of her own, to try to find out who this ‘other woman’ may be. After some frantic casting her mind around the neighbourhood and failing to find a culprit, she decides to go to London while Leo is out of town on a conference, and search the flat for clues. But things do not go as planned, and she sees, emerging from the flat, someone she would never have suspected in a million years.
From this point on events spiral off in what can only be described as a chapter of accidents of an increasingly appalling kind. I can’t possibly tell you what happens, but believe me it goes from bad to worse and is hilariously awful.
What makes this novel so excellent is that we can’t help sympathising with Sophie while she makes mistake after mistake and poor decision after poor decision. She is a somewhat foolish woman at times, and certainly appears over-delighted with her perfect life, but when we learn of her difficult upbringing in near poverty with a feckless single mother, her apparent smugness becomes more understandable. Her mother actually puts in an appearance in the novel when, on top of everything else, she moves in with the family following an accident which makes it impossible for her to look after herself. She’s a brilliant character: most of the time she’s hovering on the brink of dementia, but her memory has a habit of returning with alarmingly crystal clarity at the most inopportune moments. The rest of the family, the au pair, the cleaner and the neighbours are all beautifully observed, as is the keen and often painful depiction of middle-class village life in rural Norfolk.
I was on the edge of my seat wondering how all this was going to be resolved, but the surprises continue right up to the end and I certainly couldn’t have predicted the conclusion. I suggest you rush out and buy this straight away (or follow our link below to the Book Depository) – you certainly won’t regret it.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books – read her Q&A with Laura here.
Laura Wilson, The Other Woman (Quercus, 2017). 978-1786485212, 384pp., hardback.
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