Thursday 22 August 2019

Her Husband’s Mistake: Colouring a grey life after the heartache of infidelity

Fiction: Her Husband's Mistake

Sheila O'Flanagan

Headline Review, hardback, 448 pages, €26.59

Rooted in the real world: Sheila O'Flanagan. Photo: David Conachy.
Rooted in the real world: Sheila O'Flanagan. Photo: David Conachy.
Her Husband's Mistake
Lorraine Courtney

Lorraine Courtney

'The morning after my father's funeral, I came home and found my husband in bed with the next-door neighbour," Roxy tells us in the devastating opening sentence of Sheila O'Flanagan's new book.

Even after 20 years of marriage, Dave is the love of Roxy's life. But now she must admit to herself that he is the sort of man who would break his marriage vows "when Julie Halpin and her bootylicious bum moved in next door". What is she going to do about it?

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Roxy is an engaging central character. She's a middle-aged, suburban wife with a new understanding that a life of school runs and washing lines can be stolen in an instant and suddenly you're a woman on your knees. "I've loved Dave McMenamin since I was 16 years old," she tells us. She did, and Roxy had been secure, content and happy with her lot in life.

The shapeless blur of Roxy's early married years is well recounted, but the book really takes off when Roxy sets about colouring her grey life. Taking over her dad's company promises a kind of reinvention. He has left her the Mercedes he used for his private chauffeuring business, so she starts driving his old clients.

But, sadly, easy transformations are for caterpillars, not lonely, anxiety-ridden women. We've all been disappointed by our crappy lives and lusted after others' brighter-looking ones, but as she unpicks the past two decades of her life and tries to work out what went wrong and where, Roxy isn't sure about anything. She has spent so long caring about everyone else that she's forgotten what she wants for herself.

She talks about how she was a "confident child" but grew into a self-doubting and timid teenager. "Suddenly what boys thought of me mattered more than what I thought of myself." Then she met Dave and "the only thing that mattered in the whole world was that he loved me as much as I loved him". He made her into a kind of Stepford wife and hates her working outside the home, especially driving other men around in her taxi.

Forgive and forget or end their decade-long marriage? Dave thinks she should let it go - for his sake and for their two children. After all, it was just one mistake. But Roxy finds it's not so simple. Especially when she finds out something about her own dad's past.

Roxy moves in with her mother as she tries to work out what she should do and finds an old photo of her dad and another woman. "Mum is silent. She's turning the photo over and back in her hands and I can see tension in the corners of her eyes. 'Who's the woman?' I repeat. She still doesn't answer and I'm beginning to get a bad feeling about this. 'His first girlfriend'."

O'Flanagan doesn't skirt the pain of heartache but embraces it along with the humour (and imperfect judgment) that give her characters their aching credibility. Like a lot of things women create and consume, this story is easy to trivialise. Despite some dark themes, the book's overall tone is light and hopeful.

It's not so much that O'Flanagan slips over the heavy stuff - it's that the book is firmly set in the real world, where household chores, heartbreak and small joys regularly overlap on a daily basis.

Roxy wakes up to her true feelings while nursing Dave through a vomiting bug. She makes him a cup of tea and makes up her mind. As it turns out, a cup of tea is usually the way out of a rut and back into the world.

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