It's a happy day for me when Karma Brown has a new book out. I've been eagerly awaiting Recipe for a Perfect Wife since I first knew it was being published and the book goddesses must have been listening to me - and everyone else I know who was also looking forward to it - because it was released early! I decided to choose it for my first read of 2020 and it was an excellent choice. I was completely riveted and could hardly put the book down.
Here's the synopsis:
When Alice Hale reluctantly leaves a promising career in publicity, following her husband to the New York suburbs, she is unaccustomed to filling her days alone in a big, empty house. However, she is determined to become a writer--and to work hard to build the kind of life her husband dreams of, complete with children.Brown alternated chapters between Alice and Nellie and I loved the dual narrative. Not only because it gives the reader two characters and viewpoints (double the fun!), but also because it shone a light on what it was like to be a 1950s housewife. What I learned? I would have failed as a 1950s housewife. And possibly would have accidentally burned the house down.
At first, the old house seems to resent Alice as much as she resents it, but when she finds an old cookbook buried in a box in the basement, she becomes captivated by the cookbook's previous owner: 1950s housewife Nellie Murdoch. As Alice cooks her way through the past, she begins to settle into her new surroundings, even as her friends and family grow concerned that she has embraced them too fully: wearing vintage dresses and pearls like a 1950s housewife, making elaborate old-fashioned dishes like Baked Alaska, and drifting steadily away from her usual pursuits.
Alice justifies the changes merely as research for her novel...but when she discovers that Nellie left clues about her own life within the cookbook's pages--and in a mysterious series of unsent letters penned to Nellie's mother--she quickly realizes that the housewife's secrets may have been anything but harmless. As she uncovers a more sinister side to Nellie's marriage and with pressure mounting in her own relationship, Alice realizes that to protect herself she must harbour and hatch a few secrets of her own...
In all seriousness though, there were a lot of similarities between Alice and Nellie's lives which, honestly, is kind of disheartening. We think feminism has made such great strides in the last number of decades but Alice was still facing some of the same expectations Nellie had been in the 50s. For example, people still tend to assume that a woman should get married and then (immediately) want to have kids. That's changing, a little bit, but as a woman who has no plans to get married to her boyfriend and definitely does not want to have kids, I can tell you I'm in the minority and am constantly questioned or told I'll change my mind because, why wouldn't I want kids? I could identify with Alice as she struggled with trying to articulate why she wanted to wait to have kids when her husband was more than ready for her to be barefoot and pregnant (yes, he did say that in the book but he wasn't really as obtuse as that comment makes him seem).
Because I follow Brown on social media, I knew she had done lots of research both for the recipes she included in the book and for the life Nellie would have had in 1955. The recipes were such a fun addition because it really showed what life was like and it was so neat to read Alice's reactions to them as well. What was with all the jelly salads in the 50s? Blech. Though I do have to say, one of the meals Alice took objection to is one I can actually make (remember: undomestic goddess here). Porcupines - or porcupine meatballs as they were called in my house growing up - are ground beef and rice balls, cooked in tomato soup and spices. These days we make "porcupine mush" instead of meatballs and add in red pepper flakes for an extra kick, with the rice on the side. It's way tastier than you - and Alice - might expect.
The story takes a turn that you might not expect, especially if you've read Brown's books in the past, and even though I had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen, I was totally riveted. I kept thinking, Is it actually go down like that? Because that would be shocking if it did. Lots of internal conversations as the story reached it's conclusion.
I also liked that Alice was so very real and relatable and also so very flawed. She has a host of issues she really needs to work out instead of hiding them from herself and her husband. She made some really unhealthy choices and I constantly found myself wishing she and her husband would just talk to each other. He wasn't perfect either but they were both sort of expecting the other to read their minds. And we all know how well that works out, right? Even with her flawed personality - or perhaps because of it - I loved reading about Alice and am pleased with the way Brown decided to end the story.
Recipe for a Perfect Wife needs to be added to your To Be Read list immediately. Karma Brown's latest novel is smart and so well written. You'll be engrossed in the lives of the characters she created and will want to rush to find out how the story ends but also take your time because it's such a good read.
*An ARC of this novel was provided by the publisher, Viking (Penguin Random House Canada), in exchange for review consideration. All opinions are honest and my own.*