Monday, August 2, 2021

Book Review: The Husbands

By Jami Denison

It is rare that a book is so impactful that it spawns an entire genre, but that’s true of Ira Levin’s 1972 game-changing novel The Stepford Wives. Originally marketed as horror, now recognized as satire, Levin’s work about an upper-class Connecticut suburb where the men have murdered their wives and replaced them with laundry-loving robots is widely seen as a reaction to women’s lib. Given the choice between having the women they love seek fulfillment outside their home, men would rather have them killed. The term “Stepford Wife” has gone on to mean any woman who comes across as phony, showing no emotion while putting her husband first or decorating an impeccable household. 

Until now, it’s never been used to describe a man.

In her latest adult novel, Chandler Baker has updated and gender-swapped The Stepford Wives. In The Husbands, high-powered women are stymied at home by men who refuse to do their fair share of child care and housework. How far will they go to get the support they need? 

The protagonist of The Husbands is Nora Spangler (the name bringing to mind another famous Nora, the one trapped in The Doll’s House). An attorney on the partnership track with a pre-school daughter Liv and pregnant with a second, she’s married to software salesman Hayden, who doesn’t know why Nora’s so mad at him all the time. All she has to do is ask him for help! And if he doesn’t have a client dinner or a golf game, he’ll be happy to chip in! While house-hunting, Nora stumbles across the Dynasty Ranch neighborhood, where all the women have impressive careers and husbands who are true partners at home. Anxious to buy a house in the neighborhood, Nora agrees to help with a resident’s wrongful death case—her husband died in a mysterious fire. But is his death related to the husbands’ supportive attitudes? How far will the women of Dynasty Ranch go to have it all? 

A warning to readers with consuming jobs and small children: This book will make your blood pressure climb. The first few chapters, where Baker describes Nora trying to entertain her daughter while answering client emails and her inept boss’s request for IT help gave me PTSD flashbacks of my own years juggling work and child care. Even so, I think we might have had it easier in the early 1990s than women do now. Back then, we just accepted that managing all the housework and child care on top of our careers was the price we paid for trying to have it all. We applauded our husbands for changing the occasional diaper and then showing up at Saturday soccer games; we quit our jobs entirely when the second child came around, and after the kids were grown, ended up getting divorced and trying to find a job after being out of the labor market for fifteen years. Fun times. 

It’s hard not to root for the wives of Dynasty Ranch, even though they’re obviously up to no good. Nora, especially, tries so hard, telling herself that Hayden is a good guy and that she doesn’t want to ruin her marriage by complaining so much. Although the pace of the story is relatively slow, Baker makes up for it by soaking readers with the details of Nora’s home and office life. Nora is so overwhelmed that she forgets to register her daughter for her next year at pre-school; there’s also guilt she’s carrying around about something that happened to Liv. Baker works in the mystery about the fire in a seamless way—it’s Nora’s job to investigate it, and those scenes contrast nicely with the chaos at home. While the climax didn’t quite work for me, almost every other plot point in the book was justified. Even the details behind the husbands’ transformation made sense; they were more believable than the number of days the Dynasty Ranch home sat on the market. 

Will The Husbands become this generation’s Stepford Wives? It’s certainly a very visual story that has its fingers on the pulse of the zeitgeist. One important distinction: While The Stepford Wives is told from the point of view of a would-be victim, The Husbands is told from the point of view of a would-be villain. And these villains are driven by their own exhaustion and despair, rather than the desire to retain privilege. One might even say the husbands deserved what happened to them. 

One might.   

Thanks to Flatiron for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Chandler Baker (some are YA):

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