Reading Our Region

The Wife By Alafair Burke

 

To the roster of wealthy, powerful celebs accused of sexual harassment add Jason Powell, a corporate economist, NYU professor and best-selling author and media star — except that Jason is fictional.

Factor in, though, that his story, turning on emerging accusations of inappropriate behavior, rape, and finally, murder, is told mainly from the first-person point of view of his wife Angela, a young woman with a horrific sexual abuse story in her background.

Her decision to stand by her man gives this timely psychological thriller by stand-alone and crime-series novelist Alafair Burke, a former prosecutor who teaches criminal law, obvious authenticity.

No surprise if this twisty suspense tale becomes a major motion picture.

For East End readers, there’s something else: regional resonance. Angela grew up and went to school in Springs where she lived with her working-class mom and dad and to which she returns — with a son — after a three-year gone-missing absence, to begin a life as a Hamptons caterer for the rich and beautiful.

At a summer party she’s working one night, she meets good-looking, successful, down-to-earth Jason Powell who asks her, a north-of-the-highway girl with no college degree, connections or chic, to marry him, promising —and delivering on the promise — to love and care for her then six-year-old son Spencer as his own.

The new world of Manhattan money and privilege delights Angela, until one day an intern in Jason’s office lodges a complaint against him. Soon after, a colleague of Jason, a high-powered female executive involved in what looks like an international corruption scheme, with whom he’s been having an affair, as it turns out, accuses him of rape.

Both charges, the intern’s and the executive’s, fodder for the media, bring notoriety to Angela’s life and threaten to expose the carefully secreted facts of her past that still cause nightmares.

When she was 16, a willful but not bad girl, she allowed herself to be picked up by an attractive man in a fancy car one night as she was walking home from a beach party. He said she’d be safer with him than alone on a dark road. Once in his car, however, she was chloroformed and taken to Pennsylvania, a kidnap victim who remained his enslaved prisoner for three years.

The Hamptons police, feeling that she had simply run away from her lower middleclass life in which she hung out with a troubled friend, did little to try to find her, despite her desperate mother’s pleas.

Burke knows how to craft an engaging narrative filled with complication, shifting point of view, and strong female characters. Not all details seem relevant to the main plot, especially where secondary characters are concerned, but they do call attention to the increasing presence of women in law enforcement — in police and justice departments — and, in effect, pose provocative questions about gender allegiance.

Burke also subtly plays with the ambiguities of victimhood. Some people exploit their tragedies; others are sympathetically drawn to victims, wanting to be their saviors.

Did Jason find himself attracted to Angela, she wonders, because of her past? Did she find a devoted powerful friend in a major female newscaster who would do anything to help her because of the differences between them? Did a smart, doggedly determined local woman detective stay on Jason’s case because she wanted to do right by Angela?

How do we form partisan alliances? Burke slyly suggests that motivation may relate, in part, not only to considerations of gender, but race and class as well. Do we allow empathy or cultural history to affect our sense of justice? Is the #MeToo movement, one might wonder, as much about squaring with the past as it is about responding to the present? And how far back should one go, seeking retribution?

What should be expected of wives when their husbands are accused of sexual misconduct or crime? Think Hillary Clinton, Corinne Cosby, Huma Abedin (Anthony Weiner), or Melania Trump and then think of the differences among them. One of the strengths of Burke’s book is that it prompts such questions (book clubs are going to love The Wife) and shows how they are more complex than they first appear. And it can be shockingly ironic, given the way the plot is resolved. No spoiler alerts here, except to say it ain’t over till the smart lady sings, and that’s not until the last pages.