Difficult life lessons after ditching loving husband to ascend peaks of passion
The Husband, Deirdre Purcell
Hachette, pbk, 344 pages, €19.99
Deirdre Purcell's 14th novel is a tense page-turner about love and treachery spanning both sides of the Atlantic as the plot moves between Chicago and the fictional village of Glanmilish in Co Laois.
Marian Lescher is steady and reliable, an only child and now caring for her father in Chicago as he fades into old age. She was principal carer for her mother, too, until her death, and has sacrificed a steady journalism career to become a freelancer, figuring she can devote more time to her father if she's not punching the newsroom clock.
She falls in love with Peter, her father's doctor, and he with her. What follows is a marriage of love, sweetness and mutual respect. But as early as the second chapter, as she looks back on this marriage, Marian ruminates on Peggy Lee's great song 'Is That All There Is?' Steady, reliable, dependable Peter is not, it appears, ticking all of Marian's boxes. In a memoir of sorts that she's decided to write, she explains: "I had resigned myself to the idea that I wasn't destined to ascend the peaks of passion described by the novelists". Or not yet, anyway.
Enter Daniel Lynch, a colleague of Peter's and a big-gun in Chicago medical circles. Daniel is Irish, handsome, charming and full of blarney. Meeting him almost by accident, Marian is instantly hooked. So hooked, in fact, that she makes arrangements to interview Daniel Lynch. For a newspaper feature, of course.
And the deal with the devil is sealed. Marian has picked up the scent of sexual passion and she chases it like a bloodhound. Within a very short time, she finds herself divorcing her loving, faithful husband and marrying the charismatic Lynch. But all is not as it seems (is it ever?), and Marian has got some difficult life lessons waiting in the wings, lessons about love vs passion, honesty vs intrigue, integrity vs deceit.
One of the many things that keep Marian in the chase is his large, friendly family back in Ireland. She has never had the experience of extended family and is enraptured with her new brood of colourful Irish in-laws. But there is the exception of one sister, Ellie. When she mentions Ellie's apparent coldness towards her to Daniel, he dismisses his sister as a pill-head with emotional issues, and for a while Marian believes him. For a while, Marian believes everything that Daniel tells her. To her eventual chagrin…
To give anything more of the plot away would spoil, but Purcell delivers yet again with another guaranteed success.
Her depiction of the windy city is remarkable. Purcell obviously has a soft spot for Chicago, describing Marian's love of her favourite places, the parks and lakeside beaches, the sometimes rickety but always reliable L-train. Leafy suburbs and busy downtown spots are woven into the narrative with considerable skill but also with huge affection.
By contrast, her depiction of a lashing windstorm over the flatlands of Laois, with Marian holed up in an old, unheated and half-forgotten house, is almost gothic.
And speaking of wind (and of things gone with it), Scarlett O'Hara gets several mentions, being a favourite heroine of Marian's mother in her day. There is something of Scarlett's grit and determination in Marian, too, as she navigates her way through a series of disasters with no sympathy from her female editor, a clone of Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada.
Marian's regrets are too many to mention, and if I have a gripe about the book, it is that her overwhelming sense of guilt is a tad overdone. Purcell wants us to root for the protagonist and not to judge her mistakes too harshly; a touch of "hating the sin, but not the sinner", as the priests used to remind us.
However, the long passages of self-hating remorse do little to move along what is essentially a plot-driven novel and at times I felt Marian's soul-searching interrupted the flow. Forgiveness, if it occurs at all, must be earned, not pleaded for, and as she reels from one catastrophe to another, it felt like she needed to move on. We can never go back, not even in novels, if they are to be credible. But that's a small moan about a big, generous book. Purcell is one of our best-loved writers who used to be one of our best-loved newsreaders. Before that she was a high-profile journalist and before that again a very successful actress.
There are so many strings to this Renaissance woman's bow it's difficult to keep up, and each one is taut and pristine. Her gift for spinning a highly polished yarn has not diminished one bit, indeed it has developed very considerably since her first novel, and The Husband is undoubtedly another bestseller.