A wife in 2018 discovers letters and a cookbook from her house’s previous inhabitant—and realizes that their lives might not be so different.
Alice Hale doesn’t want to move from her tiny Manhattan apartment to a fixer-upper in the suburbs. But her husband has long wanted to move out of the city, and Alice, recently out of a job, feels like she doesn’t have a reason to say no. The free time may even give her more of a chance to start her novel-writing career. But when Alice discovers a cookbook and letters left behind by the house’s previous owner, Nellie Murdoch, she gets more inspiration than she bargained for. Alice pores over Nellie’s letters to her mother (mysteriously never mailed) to learn the minutiae of her life as a slightly bored housewife—the cooking, cleaning, and Tupperware parties. Alice even enjoys testing out the cookbook, making vintage recipes like Baked Alaska. But as readers see in chapters from Nellie’s point of view, her life wasn’t just a parade of fancy desserts and dinner parties—she was harshly controlled by her cruel and physically abusive husband. Nellie spent as much time hiding her bruises as she did making a home, being sure to keep the sordid details of her life a secret. Meanwhile, Alice is keeping a few secrets of her own from her husband. He doesn’t know that she was really fired from her last job or that she has no desire to get pregnant with the child he wants to have immediately. But as Nellie gains the courage to take control of her life, so does Alice—even if both of them might have to resort to dramatic measures. Brown (The Life Lucy Knew, 2018, etc.) skillfully alternates between Alice’s modern world and Nellie’s in the 1950s. With plentiful historical details (including recipes and depressingly hilarious marriage advice), the pages devoted to Nellie come to life. As both women both start to feel even more stifled in their marriages, Brown ratchets up the tension and pulls off a surprising—but satisfying—ending.
An engaging and suspenseful look at how the patriarchy shaped women’s lives in the 1950s and continues to do so today.