Desert Isle Keeper
The Last Wife
I wasn’t crazy about Karen Hamilton’s début novel, The Perfect Girlfriend. The main character was repugnant, and the plot twists felt overly dramatic, but there was something oddly compelling about Hamilton’s writing, something that made me decide to give her second book a try. This turned out to be a great decision, because The Last Wife is everything The Perfect Girlfriend was not.
Nina and Marie have been best friends since their school days, the kind of friends who are always there for one another, the kind of friends who know each other’s deepest, darkest secrets. Their lives have diverged a bit as adults. Marie is struggling with a failing relationship and her desperate need to conceive a child, while Nina is happily married to the man of her dreams and is the mother of two delightful children. Still, Nina and Marie remain close, so when Nina is diagnosed with a terminal illness, it’s a natural choice for her to ask Marie to care for her husband and children once she’s no longer able to do it herself, and Marie jumps at the chance to fulfill her friend’s last wishes.
At first, the reader thinks Marie is acting unselfishly, but it’s not long before strange things begin to happen, calling Marie’s motivations into question. She moves into Nina’s home almost immediately after her death, and begins to make herself indispensable to Nina’s grieving husband Stuart as well as to their children Felix and Emily. If anyone questions or criticizes the way she seems to be slipping neatly into Nina’s life, she shrugs off their concerns by assuring them this is precisely what Nina would have wanted.
As time passes and Marie becomes ever more enmeshed in the lives of Nina’s loved ones, she begins to discover that Nina was keeping some dangerous secrets of her own. At first, Marie finds it difficult to believe there’s anything about Nina she didn’t know, but the more she digs into certain aspects of her friend’s past, the more she realizes that isn’t the case. Now, she’s forced to uncover all of Nina’s secrets before they can bring the perfect life she’s managing to build down around her ears. But learning the truth isn’t always a simple or desirable thing, and Marie will eventually be forced to reckon with truths she never imagined, not only about Nina but about herself as well.
Marie is not a likeable character, but she is someone I was able to relate to. Ms. Hamilton does a great job sharing glimpses of her past with the reader, giving just enough information to keep you from completely disliking Marie. She’s someone with a lot of emotional baggage, and her past traumas have shaped the woman she is today. I strongly disliked a lot of her actions, but I always understood what was prompting them, a necessity when reading a book like this where it would be so easy to simply cast her as a villain with no redeeming personality traits.
Nina is a shadowy presence, always in the background but still a powerful influence on those she’s left behind. She dies before the story opens, so we never really get to know her as a character in her own right, but the things Marie learns about her helped me understand what kind of person she really was. At first, I got the impression she was overly saintly, but it soon became apparent there was more to her than her perfect life and string of good deeds. She was involved in some pretty horrible things, and I appreciate the author’s decision to give Nina some hidden depths, since reading about someone who is basically perfect can be pretty boring.
The plot twists here were a lot easier for me to believe in than those in the author’s previous book. Some of them were extreme, but books like this are known for being a little over the top. In fact, I firmly believe that’s part of their charm as long as they don’t veer too far from what’s actually plausible. Hamilton strikes the perfect balance here, making The Last Wife a book I’m delighted to recommend to those searching for a fun, escapist, mysterious summer read.