Summer Interlude: Liars Never Prosper
Shani Mootoo, Polar Vortex
Karma Brown, Recipe For a Perfect Wife
These titles are the last two books I read in July. They are extremely different in tone, style, and intended audience. Recipe for a Perfect Wife is the kind of popular and likeable fiction that bestseller lists love. Polar Vortex is, well, arty and Canadian; positively reviewed for sure, but maybe not as internationally popular as Karma Brown’s book.
I tend to not worry about ‘quality’ in my choice of reading material, so the distinction is not about one book being more culturally valuable than the other. Despite their differences, these books share a striking similarity in one single respect: they are both about characters who lie to their spouses. Not in the way that we all do (yes, I will absolutely do that tomorrow) but in major ways. Like, in ways that are irresponsible and damaging to their spouses and themselves. And I found myself thinking, perhaps naively, Who does this? Soap operas and sitcoms aside, does this actually happen in real life? Reader, I cannot tell you. What I can say is that the deceptive behaviour of the characters made me really not like them.
Polar Vortex takes place over the course of a single day and concerns Priya and Alex, a sixty-ish lesbian couple. They’ve been together for six years and have recently moved from Toronto to an isolated farmhouse in Prince Edward County. Priya is an artist and Alex an academic, and the quiet early winter setting seems to reflect the comfort they feel with one another.
At first, though, you think you’re getting a much different story, since Polar Vortex opens with an attention grabbing dream in which Priya has sex with Prakash, a male friend from her youth, on the day of his wedding to someone else. This is notable because Prakash is due to arrive at Alex and Priaya's house for a visit on that very day, an event that has created no small amount of tension in the household. Alex is suspicious of Prakash’s motive for visiting, and suspects that Priya shares more than just a friendly past with him. Priya clearly has something to hide but what could it possibly be? Did she and Prakash murder someone and cover it up? Did they have a child together? Were they Bonnie and Clyde-style bank thieves? As it turns out, no. We aren’t given details immediately about Priya’s past with Prakash, but we are invited to wonder why, even if she and Prakash had been romantically involved in the distant past (as the dream suggests), she would need to keep it from Alex?
The book is divided into four sections, three of which are narrated by Priya. Halfway through, the narrative shifts to Alex’s perspective, which is unexpected and a bit jarring. Through Alex's section I struggled at times to remember she was the one speaking, having grown so accustomed to the “I” being Priya. Alex’s narrative confirms that it’s not just Priya who is feeling unsettled about their relationship. Prakash himself might not be the whole problem, but the discord created by his arrival is undeniable.
Mootoo does not skim over any of Alex’s or Priya’s thoughts. Instead, she lingers on them, forcing us to read every single doubt or worst-case scenario the two imagine about one another. Their anxiety invites us to reflect on our own worries, the ones we have when we are preoccupied with something but avoid talking about it. The speculation about what our partners are thinking, the assumptions about what their intentions are, the narratives about how they might be deceiving us. It’s riveting and also frustrating, since clearly so much of the difficulty in Alex and Priya’s relationship cannot be addressed until they actually speak their thoughts aloud. To each other.
Recipe For a Perfect Wife is also told in two voices. Nellie and Alice are women who inhabit the same house during different time periods: Nellie in 1955 and Alice in 2018. Nellie is a young housewife whose husband Richard commutes to New York City for work while she spends her days gardening and cooking. Alice, on the other hand, has told her husband Nate that she quit her job in public relations so she could stay at home and write a novel. In fact, she was fired from her job and has no real writing experience, but Nate doesn’t know this and suggests they should fulfill their shared dream of moving to the suburbs and starting a family. He engages a realtor to help them find a place. Alice is less sure, but she feels she has no leverage to push back, since she is no longer contributing financially to their partnership. When Alice and Nate first tour the house they find it in drastic need of work, with ugly wallpaper, outdated wiring and overgrown gardens. On that day, it also stands out as a place Alice clearly does not want to move into. She finds it spooky and isolated, and is overwhelmed by the amount of work it needs. And here is where, as a reader, you might be tempted to throw the book against the wall and shout WHY DON’T YOU JUST TELL HIM YOU DON’T WANT TO MOVE?!? Alice works hard to downplay her doubts, but this absence of honesty suggests an overall lack of trust. As the story progresses, Alice's integrity continues to erode as she hides more information - a lawsuit, an IUD, a smoking habit - from Nate.
This is where Polar Vortex and Recipe For a Perfect Wife echo each other, with their shared focus on characters who are invested in hiding the truth. Priya and Alice are both tortured by the lies they’ve told, living in constant doubt that they'll be exposed. Still, the anxiety is not enough to motivate them to come clean with their spouses. The suspense of each novel is created by a slow unravelling of the truth, and it’s clear early on that the secrets themselves are minor compared to the impact that holding on to them has on Alice and Priya’s relationships.
In 1955, Nellie’s husband Richard is controlling and abusive, which means she must live her life on high alert, trying to anticipate and prevent his anger. Despite my sanctimony regarding marital honesty, I think it’s fair to say that Nellie’s lying is a life saving measure. Meanwhile, in the 2018 timeline, Alice’s reasons for neglecting to tell Nate about why and how she no longer works in public relations, or why she prefers not to have a baby right now, are waaay murkier. Ultimately, like Priya, she hopes to ride out the discomfort of her dishonesty and get to a place where she's moved past it. Readers see this behaviour for what it is: a fool’s errand that has lasting effects on the characters’ primary relationships.
Bored and procrastinating, Alice finds a box of Nellie’s old cookbooks and Ladies Home Journals in the basement. Alice is enthralled by the artifacts and becomes curious about Nellie’s life. Alice befriends Sally, a neighbour and the daughter of Nellie’s good friend Miriam, for information about who Nellie was. She begins to experiment with the recipes, creating classic fifties dishes such as Meatloaf and Chicken à la King. The recipes are reproduced in the book and both narrators speak about preparing them, further connecting Nellie and Alice. Though at first I found this to be a cheesy element of the writing, it’s a great conceit. Like Alice, we become curious about Nellie’s life and fate, and the recipes and letters create a parallel narrative framework that describes how Nellie ultimately escapes from Richard. (This framing of a story through recipes has been done before, namely through Julie and Julia and Like Water For Chocolate. Perhaps it’s ready to be a genre?)
Polar Vortex, also contains a historical thread. Upon first arriving at the farmhouse, Prakash speaks at length with Alex about his history as a Ugandan immigrant to Canada, and Uganda’s 1972 expulsion of its Indian citizens. His monologue is, frankly, exhausting, but also exhaustive in its exposure of true events. Alex and Priya try to fit Prakash’s story into a contemporary immigration narrative by comparing it with contemporary stories of Syrian refugees, but a straight comparison cannot be made, and their efforts only frustrate Prakash. Priya is also Indian, but her family came to Canada from Trinidad, and these multiple layers of identity - immigrant, brown-skinned, Indian but not from India - are qualities that Priya and Prakash share in terms of how they appear to white people. Furthermore, Priya and Alex’s middle class privilege mixed with their own academic sensitivities have them scrambling to say the right thing about Prakash’s past and also the locally settled Syrians. In a moment alone with Priya, Alex complains to her about Prakash’s relentless focus on his own tale: “It would have been interesting to have had - after he’d finished with his own story of course - some conversation that included us all. Don’t you think? It’s not as if you and I know nothing of Uganda.” Like many white people, Alex, it seems, can only understand the events academically, in the context of her own knowledge of history, but as Priya reminds her, the story “wasn’t academic. It was real, personal, and traumatic” and his alone to tell as often and in any way that he pleased. Or, put another way, “it’s not about you”. This scene, which goes on for a long time, falls into the only section of the book that Alex narrates. It reveals how her whiteness separates her from Priya and Prakash and how, even though she is smart and savvy about the world, she can default to ignorance and a disregard of her own privilege. It’s an incredibly effective, artfully subtle way of revealing character.
In terms of its politics, Recipe for a Perfect Wife is a feminist book, though I would argue that it is concerned only about the feminism of white middle class women. Its critique of the fifties and their veneer of perfection is too obvious a target. Alice is a woman who is financially comfortable enough in her marriage not to work, and even though she is a bit conflicted about the fact that she is essentially a housewife like Nellie was, her consciousness does not extend to a deeper analysis of her own privilege. I’m not suggesting that every single piece of fiction needs to be politically aware, but I did feel the feminism of this novel to be dated and simplistic. In the end though, what readers of Recipe for a Perfect Wife are left with is a clear sense that women’s lives actually haven’t changed all that much since 1955. Alice, like Nellie, is interested in motherhood but ambivalent about becoming pregnant in the face of her rocky relationship. Richard and Nate, absent as they are from the minute to minute responsibilities of maintaining a household, take for granted the work involved in creating meals and keeping a garden. Alice is at first reluctant to take on these tasks, but feels guilty about being at home all day while Nate works. As she gets to know Nellie and the history of the house, she becomes more like her, dressing in vintage clothes and becoming comfortable looking after the garden. And, when the household is your full domain, it is also your only outlet for creativity and pride, which explains why being a housewife in the 1950s needed to be elevated to a science and an art. It was an attempt to build fulfillment into what is essentially a lifetime of drudgery. That Alice is subject to this in 2018, as Nellie was in 1955 should be more surprising.
Alice and Priya are so consumed by maintaining false appearances that they fail to see their partners pulling away from them. Unsurprisingly, this is their downfall, and for both, the outcome of their deception is suitably shocking. More kind-hearted readers than I might have drawn less satisfaction from these outcomes, but as I said, they aren't very likeable protagonists so I found it appropriate that they should meet their comeuppance(s).
What both books show us is that it is not possible for a secret to survive in an honest and open relationship or even in a terribly dysfunctional one.
Why tell the truth? Because it's worth it, my friend.