Camille Hart is devastated, frightened, and unsure how to break the news to her physician husband of twenty years, Edward Constantin. The cancer they thought she beat last year has returned and her odds of survival are slim, at best, even if she agrees to undergo risky treatment that might make her final days agonizing.
Although their marriage is the one that, if asked to bet, all of their friends and family members would pick as most likely to weather any storm, it was tested during Camille’s treatment and recovery. The ordeal also took a predictable toll on their two children, teen-aged Kyra and young Kyle. Specifically, it demonstrated the difficulties Edward would face as a single parent and dredged up painful memories of Camille’s own childhood. After her mother’s death, when Camille was just fourteen years old, her father, Larry, was physically and emotionally absent most of the time, leaving Camille to raise her younger sister, Holly.
Camille is determined that she will not undergo futile treatment, instead opting for chemotherapy that will prolong her life and enable her to enjoy as much quality time as possible with her family while continuing to run her business. A professional matchmaker, she also focuses on ensuring that, following her own death, her children will not be left to fend for themselves the way she and Holly were. Camille begins the search for her husband’s next wife, the woman who will be her children’s devoted stepmother — despite Edward’s protests.
Single-minded in her desperate effort to spare her children from the anguish she still carries with her about her own childhood, Camille proceeds with her plan, unmindful of the fact that tampering with others’ emotions and futures might have a disastrous impact on all concerned . . . especially her.
“Be careful what you wish for.” Author Eileen Goudge’s latest novel, The Replacement Wife is an exploration of that old adage, set in present-day Manhattan where the best medical care in the world is available, but still inherently fallible and, sadly, too-often limited.
Camille’s matchmaking business is thriving in a culture where single professionals need help finding a life mate. Her own happy marriage to Edward is her best form of advertising. Even though their bond was tested during the prior year while she underwent debilitating treatment for cancer, including a stem cell transplant, she and their union survived. The children are thriving in the family’s new state of normal and, as the story opens, Camille hopes to hear the same news she has been given during her prior recent check-ups. Unfortunately, one look at her test results tells her that matters have again worsened, even before her doctor has a chance to detail the latest, bleakest possible findings.
Edward, an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat specialist), has a keen understanding of the medical challenge Camille is again facing. He is also utterly devoted to his wife and children, and cannot envision his life without Camille. She is like oxygen — completely necessary for his own survival. Thus, he cannot accept her decision not to undergo aggressive treatment in a last-ditch effort to beat the odds. He also consults his colleagues, searching for an available clinical trial or alternative form of treatment with the hope that if such opportunity presents itself, he can convince Camille to participate. At the outset then, Goudge pits Edward and Camille against each other.
Their relationship faces further complications when Camille announces that she is not only going to find a perfect replacement wife for Edward, but launch the relationship before her own demise. In the hands of a less skillful writer, Camille could have been transformed into a sadomasochistic monster in readers’ eyes, losing their sympathy and compassion at that point in the story. However, Camille’s childhood losses inform and compel her actions. Moreover, by that point, Goudge has already endeared readers to the feisty matchmaker and her dashingly handsome and charming husband, frequently compared to George Clooney in looks, if not temperament, and cemented Camille’s believably altruistic motives.
As Camille proceeds to introduce Elise, a beautiful divorced schoolteacher whose first husband was unfaithful to her, to Edward and their unsuspecting children, readers will feel like passersby watching a train about to careen off its tracks, yelling at the engineer, who cannot hear them, to immediately hit the brakes before it is too late to prevent a catastrophe. Aware of Camille’s goal, Elise reluctantly agrees to meet her family and once she does, she cannot help but develop feelings for all of them, but especially Edward. Edward complies only to placate Camille, still intent on convincing her to abandon her crazy scheme and undergo more aggressive treatment, no matter how slight the chance that it can save her.
Yet another cliche plays heavily in Goudge’s tale: the cruel twists that fate is capable of delivering bring both surprising news and yet another potential candidate for the role of replacement wife into Edward and Camille’s lives. At that point, Goudge takes the story in an unpredictable but fascinating direction as all involved must grapple with the changes that news brings to their lives and relationships.
The Replacement Wife is a mesmerizing work because Goudge has carefully constructed characters who are well-meaning, loving, and moral. They each, in their own imperfect way, want only to do the right thing both for their loved ones and themselves, seeking to make choices that address their own emotional needs and boundaries, while taking into account the feelings of those they love. And for that reason, it is a story that is not only impossible to put down, but will keep readers guessing about the outcome until the very end, in no small measure because it is clear that Goudge, like her audience, wants only the best outcome for this surprisingly empathetic collection of searchers for true love.
This was my first experience reading Goudge’s work, but it definitely won’t be my last. The Replacement Wife is precisely the type of book I enjoy most: replete with flawed but relatable characters facing real-world, wrenching questions to which there are not ready or pain-free answers. It is among my favorite books of 2012 to date and I highly recommend it.