Karma Brown – Recipe For A Perfect Wife
Published By – Legend Press
Available From All Good Bookshops and Online.
What They Say
When Alice Hale leaves a career to become a writer and follows her husband to the New York suburbs, she is unaccustomed to filling her days alone in a big, empty house. But when she finds a vintage cookbook buried in the basement, she becomes captivated by its previous owner: 1950s housewife Nellie Murdoch. As Alice cooks her way through the past, she realizes that within the pages Nellie left clues about her life.
Soon Alice learns that while a Baked Alaska may seem harmless, Nellie’s secrets may have been anything but. When Alice uncovers a more sinister, even dangerous, side to Nellie’s marriage, and has become increasingly dissatisfied with her own relationship, she begins to take control of her life and protect herself with a few secrets of her own.
What I Say
When I heard about Karma Brown’s novel from Legend Press, it had me at Perfect Wife. Increasingly in a world today where your worth is judged by likes and retweets of an image you can filter and edit until it fits in with the image you want to present, I am endlessly intrigued by the notion of perfection, and how society decides what that is.
In this novel, we are presented with two women, Nellie and Alice, who although they live decades apart in America – Nellie in the 1950s, Alice in the present time, you are aware right from the very start how little has actually changed, in spite of our claims of equality for women.
Alice and her husband Nate buy a house in the suburbs – which turns out to be Nellie’s former marital home. As soon as Alice steps inside the house, she is aware of something in the atmosphere that she can’t explain, and a house that seems to be an untouched shrine to the woman who previously lived there.
For Nellie, as a young married woman, she is expected to maintain the house, behave appropriately, and to ensure her husband Richard is happy at all times – whatever the cost. The world that Nellie has grown up in has very strict beliefs about women and their place in the world, and their worth is measured not only by their ability to keep house, their husband’s happiness, but more importantly by their fertility and child bearing ability. Her increasingly fractured and at times violent relationship with her husband Richard, means that she seeks solace in her garden, and by cooking her way through a cookbook, putting her unhappiness and isolation into paying meticulous attention to every single recipe.
It was interesting to see how in the present day, Alice has given up work and reluctantly moved to this house, seemingly to help renovate it and to write a novel. As soon as she has agreed to move in, her husband Nate sees it as an opportunity for them to start trying for children – a decision he makes without consulting Alice, and one he expects her to embrace wholeheartedly. I thought it was a clever plot device that saw Alice trapped in a house she didn’t particularly want, and now her life seemed to be just as constricted as Nellie’s. The assumption is made that as she was now ‘just’ a housewife, that the next logical step is to have a child, irrespective of her own dreams and ambitions.
The novel shifts seamlessly between the present day and the 1950’s, and I loved the detail that Karma has put into the descriptions of the lifestyle and fashion of the time. As a reader, you really feel part of Nellie’s world, and the ‘advice’ from manuals at the start of each chapter absolutely makes you aware of just how limited expectations of women were at that time. Nellie is only free from the increasingly violent and controlling behaviour of her husband when she is pregnant. Yet Richard’s care and concern seemed to stem more from his need to prove to those around him his virility and facade as a seemingly perfect father to be and husband, than a man in love with his wife.
When Alice is looking around her new home, she finds a couple of boxes which contain magazines, clothes, and the recipe book that Nellie used. As Alice starts to read through this cookbook, she starts to become more and more involved with the house and Nellie’s story. Nate starts to enjoy the fact his wife is at home, and they seem to slip into the traditional roles as Richard and Nellie did before them. At the same time, we as readers can see how this is only making Alice feel more claustrophobic and resentful towards her husband. Her choices seem to be constrained by the very fact that she is now falling into the role of a perfect wife, and all the unspoken societal norms that we still face as modern women.
As the novel progresses, these seemingly unconnected women, are in fact becoming more and more alike, and by learning more about Nellie, Alice soon realises she too is increasingly finding herself trapped by the expectations of those around her. As Nellie faces a life married to a man who sees her as nothing more than a baby making machine and someone who he can take all his frustrations out on, she realises the answer to a new life lie within the pages of her recipe book. When Alice realises that too, the novel deliciously takes on a whole new layer of dark brilliance.
Karma Brown has written a novel which is sharp, incisive and a joy to read. I really related to both Nellie and Alice, both of whom are really engaging, and articulate many of the frustrations felt by women. What for me, completely elevates Recipe For A Perfect Wife as a novel, is the brilliant plotting and unexpected sense of menace which permeates the later chapters. To know how Nellie managed to exist within her far from perfect marriage, and for us to understand exactly how Alice will ensure she gets the life she wants, is an unsettling and perfect ending to a novel which could so easily in the hands of a less atuned writer have been a straightforward narrative novel of two women living decades apart.
Recipe For A Perfect Wife is a clever and thought provoking novel, that articulates perfectly the frustrations and limits placed on women by others, whilst at the same time showing us that we are ultimately in control of our own destiny – if we are prepared to ultimately challenge and confront the very people that have put them there in the first place.
About Karma Brown…
Karma is the bestselling author of four novels and is a National Magazine Award winning journalist. Karma lives just outside Toronto, Canada with her husband, daughter, and a labradoodle named Fred.
Thank you very much to Lucy Chamberlain at Legend Press for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review as part of the Blog Tour.
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