Recipe for a Perfect Wife by Karma Brown – 2 wives in the 1950s and contemporary America
Alice Hale has something to hide. She also does not want to move to a house in the suburbs. So if her perfect relationship with Nate is a bit stressed, she seeks distraction and friendship with her neighbour, it is hardly surprising. When she discovers the papers of one of her predecessors, Nellie Murdoch, in the atmospheric house, she becomes thoroughly engaged in the 1950s and a very different life. This is a book of two women, both distinctive characters, both married, and facing problems. The layers of research into a woman’s lifestyle in the 1950s is impressive but never gets in the way of the story. The two accounts of the women’s lives move both stories on well, and maintain the suspense as in a really moving way. I particularly enjoyed the way questions are asked by the characters, an echo of some of the questions I had as the narrative preceded. I was really pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this well constructed and written book.
The book begins with Alice tackling the garden of the house that she did not want to move to when she saw it. Not that she is a gardener, or indeed a cook, or knows how to sort out this shabby house with all its challenges. She finds that the house seems to be conspiring against her, especially as she is already stressed about her change of role from high powered PR executive to writer and housewife. Her husband Nate is a caring individual who has always demonstrated genuine concern for her, and he is extremely keen to start a family.
Following a recipe of the time, Nellie Murdoch is introduced. It is July 1955 and she seems to be a housewife with a keen interest is cooking and gardening, and evidently a husband who has views on what she should wear. Richard has a weak stomach, but Nellie takes care to give him food to help. As the book progresses, it emerges that while Richard is determined to start a family, he is immensely controlling and becomes quite brutal. Alice soon finds some letters from Nellie to her mother to go along with the cookery book and magazines she has already discovered, and tries to fit together a picture of this mysterious woman’s story. As she has to come to terms with a lot herself, she becomes more involved with the 1950s life of Nellie.
I found this a fascinating book, well plotted and hugely readable. It has much to say about the experience of women in both the 1950s and the twenty first century. While Nellie is confronted by the need to be a “perfect” wife, she is in many ways doing everything she can to fulfil that perception. Alice’s experience shows a different sort of pressure to have and do it all; a profession which of itself proves challenging, and seeking out a role to replace it. This book presents a vivid picture of women’s lives in the light of expectations for a “perfect wife”, and I recommend it as a really sensitively written novel.