The Third Mrs. Durst
Some books need more suspension of disbelief than others and The Third Mrs. Durst is definitely one of those novels. The tale of a ‘hillbilly’ getting her revenge against a rich, powerful man, it bends reality pretty close to the breaking point – but it has fun getting there.
Marlena Altizer hadn’t even graduated from high school when she fled a shack filled with five brothers and sisters in Barrettville, KY and set out on her own for Nashville, preferring to die on the streets there than live the same dead end existence as her mother. After a bit of finagling, she meets a scout from a modeling agency who changes her life. He pays to have her teeth fixed and gets her modeling jobs for “department store shows and local catalogues, a few regional TV commercials.” I struggled with that because I have never heard of a modeling agency that both provided room and board until the girls got work and paid to have their models beautified so they could appear in local fliers, even with the idea of the girl paying them back. Local modeling tends not to pay enough to make such a practice worthwhile but since this was only page six and I had three hundred more pages to go, I set my doubts aside and moved on.
Marlena’s big break comes when a rockabilly band casts her in one of their videos. She has to study MTV to figure out just what they want from her but she delivers and is rewarded for her efforts with other lucrative modeling contracts. There is the pesky little problem of the lead singer raping her after filming but this is something Marlena seems just to accept. The first time had been worse – she’d been only eleven then and her mom’s boyfriend hadn’t exactly been gentle.
Fast forward a few years and Marlena is working catwalks in Europe and drawing the attention of the owner of the agency which signed her. Michael Durst is very, very wealthy and his interest in her is intense, focused and lavish. He’s also Marlena’s target, the finale of the grand plan which she alludes to throughout the start of the novel but never defines. It is clear, though, that their wedding is not the beginning of happily ever after but the closing round of a game only one of them knows they’re playing.
Lest you feel too sorry for poor Michael let me assure you that whatever he gets, he has coming. He’s a misogynistic, violent, short tempered thug who has already murdered two wives for the insurance money. He’d have been scary if he wasn’t so cartoonish.
But he is a cartoon and Marlena is a Mary Sue. She’s the girl who’s so beautiful that a modeling scout would sign her on the spot at a McDonald’s, so smart she can learn several languages as an adult and so sexy that if she needs a man to desire her, she can seduce him in no time flat. Take for example her bodyguard/ jailor Vince. His family is being held hostage as part of one of Michael’s nefarious schemes but when a badly injured Marlena decides to ensnare him all she has to do is be nude in front of him a few times. The first time they have sex she has a bump on her head and dozens of deep, debilitating welts on her back from having been beaten to the point of unconsciousness with a belt. Love-making at that point not only sounded very uncomfortable, it sounded ridiculous. Badly injured people should invoke sympathy, not lust. Especially when sleeping with them may result in the death of yourself and possibly your loved ones.
Another issue I had was that Michael was livid when Vince caught Marlena by the elbow once in public when she tripped. So saving her from a fall caused Michael to jealously berate and threaten Vince and yet a few months later, he sends Marlena off with only Vince as her nurse/babysitter when she’s injured. To a remote cabin with no cameras. It’s true he believes Vince is gay (Vince is actually bi) but Michael had believed that even before berating/threatening Vince in the earlier scene. And why no security cameras? A home security system that gives visuals for four rooms runs in the low hundreds and – if the box is to be believed – is easy to install. A man as rich as Michael could have afforded such cameras and expert help to install them. It made no sense to me that Michael was presented as so jealous that he went ballistic when someone smiled at Marlena too warmly but gave her sufficient freedom that she could sleep with Vince at the cabin, have sex with him in the garage of her building, and also make love to her best friend Jenny whenever they had sleepovers while Michael was out of town.
I could write several more paragraphs about what I found unbelievable in the story, but suffice it to say that the above is simply a sampling of what I found to be highly implausible in this tale. The novel could have been saved by strong characterizations, but only Marlena is fleshed out and she falls more into caricature than character.
With that said, I think The Third Mrs. Durst will still appeal to some readers. It’s well written enough that it comes across as more campy than cliched, and is also a fun house of a story which takes you on a rollicking rollercoaster style reading adventure. Like any carnival-style experience it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, but if you are willing to simply sit back and enjoy the ride, you can definitely enjoy this. My recommendation would be that those who can easily suspend their disbelief give The Third Mrs. Durst a try, but if you are one of those who reads with a heavy dose of skepticism, one of the excellent, best-selling thrillers that abound on the market right now will be more to your taste.