The Secret Lives of Married Women – Elissa Wald

3 out of 5


Erotic fiction is not out of place on Hard Case Crime. It’s certainly seeded, to a degree, into the pulp crime genre which the imprint favors, but they’ve also republished a Lawrence Block dual-book specifically from that scene, as well as a modern-day version of the same from the author. But, admittedly, that’s still rather limited, and you could say that those books were just included based on Block’s legacy as a pulp writer. And while I tend to go into most HCC entries “blind” – I’m going to read them regardless, so no need to review back cover copy or whatnot – when I haven’t heard of a writer, I will check them out as I start the book, and that Elissa Wald’s main previous credit was a book of short “explorations of the pleasures and rituals of dominance and submission” (quoting from the media blurb), I raised an eyebrow in curiosity, and restudied the front image of a nude woman being blindfolded by a clothed man, and one of those wonderful HCC stingers: “How far would he go? And how far did I want him to?”

Erotic fiction is not generally my wheelhouse, and S&M is of little interest to me; but I have faith in Hard Case Crime – it’s why I follow it – and believed there would be a reason the book found its way there.

…And then a little ways into the book, I wasn’t sure if I cared why it was there, because Wald’s writing is fantastic.

I experienced something similar with the HCC entry right before this: Stephen King’s Joyland. Not a writer I seek out or have previously enjoyed, but I suddenly “got” why he could be celebrated, so swept up was I by the characters, and the author’s voice. And those same compliments apply here: there’s some minor intrigue as we dig into Leda’s narrative, moving into a new house with her somewhat emotionally cold husband, Stas, but the book feels much more interested in the psychology at work here, which is perhaps the tie to Wald’s previous work. Nothing about this exploration feels forced, or signaling of intentions; it also doesn’t feel wandering: each chapter adds to our understanding of Leda’s relationship with Stas; her children; her twin sister Lillian. Meanwhile there’s the creepy – but alluring? – Jack, who’s doing repairs on the house next door, and seems insistent on helping Lillian with her new home’s maintenance, “coincidentally” always while Stas is away.

Now, given the aforementioned pedigree of the book, this is where I kept expecting the slow-boil nature of this to take a turn toward illicit thoughts and bondage and whatnot. But… it doesn’t. The subtext is there, but Wald’s voice is incredibly restrained, which does play off of some things we learn about Lillian’s past, and then the turbulence Jack introduces into her marriage, but this is all, ultimately, still a character study, and quite an immersive one. When some crime elements do finally come to the fore, it’s incredibly tense for this reason: we maybe haven’t spent time sifting through red herrings and shootouts, but that we have gotten quite inside Lillian’s head turns molehills into mountains; it’s tense, page-turning stuff.

And then it ends.

Or part one does. Remember: I skipped the back cover snippet, which means I wasn’t aware that the book was going to focus on both sisters, and so we switch to Leda for part two. But this is still intriguing: I looked forward to seeing how the parts would intertwine.

Leda’s half of the book is a little less grabbing; she feels more like a repressed erotic fiction character than Lillian’s more “natural” persona, though not to suggest Ledas don’t exist in the world: an anti-porn, business-minded woman, Leda and her husband Darren look happy on the surface (to Lillian in particular), but have spent so much time on their careers that maybe they haven’t actually had the opportunity to question that happiness. Instead, Leda gets swept up in the life of an associate of a new client: Nan, a professional submissive. Nan is a fascinating character, and it’s telling that we switch between her relative POV and Leda’s in this half of the book, as though Wald also realized it was more worthwhile to focus on Nan. But this – perhaps obviously – also distills the book’s general structure of focusing on the sisters. And as we get further into Nan’s experience, and how that relates to Leda’s client and case, it became clear to me that whatever I was expecting to carry over from Part One probably wasn’t going to, which meant that Part Two would probably also, similarly, just end.

And it does.

That’s not to say there aren’t conclusions to these halves, or that they don’t thematically relate, and support the title of the book, but it essentially means we’re reading two short stories; I can’t say I got the longer-lasting impact I felt like the initial psychological plumbing done potentiated. That’s, admittedly, on me, but had I read the back cover copy, I think there’s some leading wording in there as well, not to mention that front stinger; not lies at all, but suggestive of something “more”… and I’m not so confident that that’s some kind of meta move to apply to these women’s secrets. The seal on this is the epilogue, which felt like a final confirmation that this is all fairly ephemeral; reaching for an indication that the internal struggles for Leda and Lillian may go on, but that that’s also shoulder-shruggingly normal.

Wald’s writing is consistently impressive throughout. And it’s very possible that with a different set of expectations (perhaps on a reread), the impact would be there. If anything, it makes me more curious to go back and read her previous book, since it’s clear from the start that that’s intended to be short stories. It also bums me out a bit that we haven’t seen (that I can find) another fiction entry from her, because her voice is already so strong that I imagine a followup could only be stronger.