One of my favorite things about being an editor is mining for the gems protruding from the rough, polishing them, and helping them shine to tell a story that dazzles. One of my favorite things about reading an already-published story is trying to pinpoint the original “what if” question. I may not always be right, but asking this question leads to some pretty great analysis and understanding of what makes a story tick. In this article, I look at a truly fantastic work, Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret.
Disclaimer: This blog is one huge plot spoiler, so…consider yourself advised.
What Do the Berlin Wall, a Letter, and a Dead Girl Have in Common?
The story starts with mom and Tupperware sales legend Cecilia Fitzpatrick sitting at her kitchen table and contemplating her deep dislike of the Berlin Wall. She reveals that if not for the Berlin Wall, she wouldn’t be fretting over the contents of a letter that she otherwise never knew existed. The letter is from her husband, John Paul, and is only to be opened in the event of his death.
Hence, at the onset, we have an indication as to the reason behind the book’s title, and we are also curious to know what the letter says. What a great hook! An unopened letter is a fantastic McGuffin (plot trigger). What does it say? What’s his secret? A person like me would’ve ripped open the letter and would have read it, so Moriarty makes quick work of giving us insight into Cecilia’s focused and well-organized personality to explain why she wouldn’t open it.
As we move forward, Moriarty throws readers off the scent and gives them something new to posit by having Cecilia elude to problems between her and John Paul in the bedroom, and these are problems that are driving Cecilia to distraction.
Gradually we are introduced to the other major players:
- The Fitpatricks’ three daughters
- Tess, Will, and Felicity. Tess and Will are married; however, Will and Tess’ cousin Felicity reveal that they’ve fallen in love prompting Tess to remove her son Liam from school in Sydney and to fly to Melbourne where her mother and the Fitzpatricks live
- Rachel Crowley, whose daughter Janie Crowley was murdered when she (Janie) was a teen, also has a son named Rob. Rob is married to Lauren and the two have a young son together. Rachel works at St. Angela’s Catholic school in Melbourne.
By the end of part one, here’s what we know:
- Janie Crowley was found lying dead in a park with rosary beads in her hand.
- Rachel and Rob have a strained relationship. Rachel irrationally resents Lauren (the underlying implication is most likely because her own daughter is dead and seeing Lauren experience all of the things Janie never will causes her pain). Rob and Lauren are moving to New York for two years and are taking Jacob with them.
- Tess, at her mother Lucy’s encouragement, enrolls her son Liam at St. Angela’s where she reacquaints with a former boyfriend, Connor. Connor is the school’s PE teacher, and all of the moms as well as Polly Fitzpatrick, Cecilia’s five-year-old, think he’s a hottie.
- Despite his status as a motorcycle-riding mom-crush magnet and former waterbed owner, Rachel despises Connor because she’s convinced he killed Janie because he was the last known person to see Janie alive (she had no idea Janie was dating anyone.). She becomes increasingly obsessed with proving it.
- Cecilia tells John Paul she found the letter. His reaction is so over-the-top and his nonchalance so feigned that she opens it and reads it.
The remainder of the book will focus on what to do with John Paul’s long-dead secret, which impacts every character in the book. The consequences of his secret come full circle in the climax.
Before we move on, let’s look at something else. All of the major characters have been brought together in one central location. In a previous post, I talked about the importance of setting and scene. One tip I had was to establish locations of significance as well as locations where the majority of the action takes place. In this story, it’s both Melbourne and St. Angela’s. These places have memories for all of these characters, some good and some bad.
The What If
So, we have all of this working, but the question still remains, “What’s the ‘what if’ that compelled Moriarty’s story?” I have my theory, so let’s move forward and see if you agree.
The Dead Girl Did It
Ultimately, the question of (plot spoiler alert), “What if a nice man accidentally murdered a girl he really liked when he was a teenager and decades later, because of a confessional letter he wrote, his wife learns of his darkest secret and realizes she didn’t know the father of her children as well as she thought she did?”
Why after so much time would it matter or impact anything?
Here’s where POV matters. If this whole story was told through Cecilia’s eyes, then we would have NO idea that it was John Paul’s actions that compelled the climax that directly impacts her entire family, Connor Whitby, and Rachel Crowley.
Plot & Climax
Here’s what we learn in the post-letter reading section of the novel:
- Janie only ever dated two boys: Connor and John Paul (no one knew about the other nor did her parents know she dated at all). Here, we have another secret, which on an underlying level, influenced the outcome for all characters.
- Rachel, Janie’s mother, is almost driven mad by her daughter’s death primarily because she feels some culpability because she was late to pick Janie up from the bus stop the day Janie died.
- Tess dates Connor again when her marriage is on the rocks. At the point of climax, Connor is waiting to meet up with Tess to fly his giant kite (define giant). Tess never shows up for their kite-flying date because she’s waiting for Will who’s flown to Melbourne to try to salvage their marriage. Had she met up with Connor, he wouldn’t have been walking home as the Fitzpatricks were running an errand.
- Cecilia is nearly destroyed by the burden of her husband’s secret. She’s distracted and thus forgets an essential accompaniment to the hot cross buns served at Easter. The family goes for a walk up the road to a bodega for some butter.
- As they walk up the hill, Polly sees Mr. Whitby and his enormous kite and rapidly pedals her bike up the hill to say hello to him.
- Rachel Crowley is driving her car. She’s just learned that the police will no longer treat Connor as a subject of interest in Janie’s death. Rachel sees Connor as he’s about to cross the street. Convinced beyond measure Connor killed Janie. She presses her foot to the gas pedal.
- Connor jumps out of the way of Rachel’s car, but a flash of pink and a bump cause Rachel to pump the brakes. It’s too late. Polly Fitzpatrick is lying in the middle of the road.
Here’s everything comes together. Had John Paul never strangled Janie, then Rachel wouldn’t be bitter and torn with frustration and resentment, nor would she resent Connor and try to kill him. Had Cecilia not read the letter, then she’d have never forgotten the butter for the buns, and the Fitzpatricks would’ve never taken that fateful walk. Had Will and Felicity never fallen in love, Tess wouldn’t be in Melbourne, and Connor, not at that park. If Tess hadn’t stood Connor up, he’d have never been walking home at the time that he was, resulting in Polly racing to meet him and darting into the road just as Rachel Crowley tried to kill the man she believed murdered her daughter but instead nearly killing the daughter of the man who did actually murder her daughter.
The Secret’s Out: Bringing It Home
After Polly’s accident, Moriarty wraps up the plot lines. Here’s how it rubs out:
Tess & Will
Will, who is on the way to meet Tess and is delayed by the accident with Rachel and Polly, relays what he saw to Tess, who both realize their family is what matters most and endeavor to stay together. They both divulge little secrets they’d kept from each other, secrets that had quietly been driving them apart. For Will, it was his awareness of his aging, his little bald spot. For Tess, it was her crippling shyness, her introversion. Both feel closer after they have no secrets.
Rachel and the Fitzpatricks
Rachel is horrified and full of guilt over Polly’s accident. The Fitzpatricks come clean about what John Paul did as a way to forgive Rachel and to relieve themselves of the burden of their secret. Idealistically yet realistically, Rachel never turns John Paul in; she wouldn’t want to burden Cecilia with caring for a disabled daughter plus two other daughters alone nor would she want the Fitzpatrick girls to grow up with no father.
Rachel, Rob, and Lauren
Rob and Lauren are increasingly attentive to Rachel after her incident with Polly. They’ve already been trying to get closer to her; Rob has already discussed how impacted he was by Janie’s death (it’s not uncommon for a parent, after losing a child, to become disinterested in their still-living offspring. It’s not what you’d think happens, but it’s an incredibly common phenomenon. As a mother who’s lost a child, I understand how complex grief is in this regard; though, thankfully, my interest in and love for my living children has not diminished as a result of my non-living child.). Rob and Lauren do still go to New York, but instead of being so curmudgeonly, Rachel decides that she will get a passport and travel.
Thematically, it’s about secrets. What happens when they are kept. What happens when they are divulged. Ultimately, I think Moriarty started with one central secret, the one that related to Janie Crowley, and the rest blossomed from there.
Above all things, Moriarty’s novel is a great example of thoughtful construction and most likely, of careful editing. When I read such a thoughtfully constructed novel, I have to remind myself that this didn’t fall fully-formed from Moriarty’s mind to the page as I receive it (lest I doubt my own writing abilities). I have to remind myself that Moriarty edited her writing. There were drafts. The story was a process in which she thoughtfully refined her work, the culmination of which was The Husband’s Secret.
Editors are about more than commas and syntax (though, we’re about that, too); we’re also about plot, structure, character, pace, timing, theme, etc.,--the driving forces behind a piece of writing. If you’ve finished a manuscript and need an editor who gets the big picture (plus the technical nuances), or if you’re trying to write a novel and need a writing coach, contact me, Vonnie York, and let me help you perfect your novel.