It is 1987. Lucy West is primarily a stay-at-home mother to two children, Margaret and Jeremy. She also works part-time, sometimes contributing articles to the Sussex newspaper of which her husband, Max, is the editor.
Kate Cunningham is a model and mother to Matthew and Abby. She and her husband, Chip, a handsome, successful attorney, move to Sussex in 1987. Kate and Lucy meet at their older children’s preschool and become friends.
Lucy inherited her aunt’s house on Nantucket, so the two women begin spending most of the summer months there, joined by their husbands when they can get away from work. The two families merge to become like one, with the children all growing up together.
Neither marriage is perfect. Max suffers from bouts of depression, during which he retreats into himself, focusing only on his work while shutting Lucy out of his life both physically and emotionally. Kate acts out her discontent in ways that shock Lucy, and test her loyalty to Kate and their friendship. Lucy and Max experience a tragedy that threatens to derail their already tempestuous marriage, the aftermath of which binds the two families together in an unforeseeable and completely inextricable manner. Thayer explores each character’s reaction to the events, as the beliefs and foundations upon which they have built their lives and their relationships hang in the balance.
In a less skillful writer’s hands, the story of Lucy, Max, Kate, Chip, and their children could have been just another melodramatic story suitable for a television movie-of-the-week. But Thayer tells the story from two different points in time, 1987-88 and 1998, in alternating chapters. That cleverly allows the reader to become acquainted with the characters via their experiences at those different points in time, while permitting Thayer to time the revelation of key plot developments for maximum emotional impact. It also heightens the reader’s curiosity and makes it a difficult book to put down: Engrossed in the action in one time period and anxious to find out what will happen next, the reader is suddenly thrust back into a different point in time and must keep reading in order to hone back in on the action that was taking place in the prior chapter, and so on.
Since the story is told from her perspective, the narrator, Lucy, is the most fully developed and intriguing character. She and Max married right after college, moving frequently in the early years of their marriage to accommodate Max’s flourishing newspaper career. She didn’t mind that she was separated from her friends and family because she was “elated with everything” and busy caring for their first child, Margaret. “We were exactly where we wanted to be, doing what we had dreamed of doing.” So if she “missed a female voice [she] could always call [her] mother.”
“Does every woman at some point in her life wander through the sleeping house, looking in at her husband and children, and wonder what she’s doing here, in this particular life? I think so. I think we all carry the girl we once were within us, and from time to time we need to commune with her, our early self.”
Lucy West in Between Husbands & Friends
Within a few yeas, they purchased their first home in the suburb of Boston where Max became editor-in-chief of the newspaper he was determined to transform into the best small-town weekly paper in New England. But the bliss of those early, heady days of accomplishment and promise could not be sustained indefinitely. And as much as Lucy loves her husband, child, and the life they have established, she begins to wonder what she might have experienced had she not married and settled into domesticity so quickly.
Lucy meets Kate at the open house for their children’s preschool and is fascinated by her because she is all the things Lucy is not: Tall, thin, blond, impeccably groomed, a catalogue model. Lucy describes her as “the most interesting woman I’d met since I’d moved to Sussex, the first woman I’d felt that private instantaneous click, . . .” They meet again at a softball game and it is when Kate gives voice to her risque thoughts about one of the players’ older brother, that a real friendship is born.
As if pulled there by her own magnetism, my gaze landed on Kate’s face. She was smiling at me, a smile full of mischief and insolence. She wiggled her eyebrows and glanced over at Pitching Wally’s sexy brother, then glanced back at me and nodded. She knew exactly what I was thinking. She was thinking it, too. I laughed out loud, and for a few more seconds I felt free of my responsible, reliable, good-citizen persona. It was like lifting off the earth, like being weightless, like breathing an atmosphere made of the driest champagne. It was a little bit like falling in love.
Max and Chip, also dissimilar in many ways, also become friends, and the two families begin a years-long tradition of spending the summers together at Lucy’s Nantucket house where the women and children reside full-time. The men shuttle between the beach house and their responsibilities back home. Needing a break from motherhood, the women enlist a babysitter and go out to a dance club. It is the first time Lucy realizes that her boundaries and Kate’s are not the same.
It was at this point that some reviewers became disenchanted with both the characters of Lucy and Kate, and the book itself, finding Kate’s behavior repugnant and Lucy’s complicity unforgivable. Women’s friendships are frequently complex matter of the heart, however, and able to withstand all sorts of indiscretions and tests of loyalty. So I did not find Lucy’s willingness to keep Kate’s secrets that surprising. After all, by the time she realizes what Kate is capable of, the families’ lives are so intertwined that revealing Kate’s conduct would have been devastating. Not to mention that she selfishly wants to hold onto the relationship she has established with Kate.
Eventually, Lucy finds herself willingly engaging in duplicitous behavior that could destroy not just her friendship with Kate, as well as Max’s relationship with Chip, but her marriage and entire way of life. She is lonely and depressed, as is Max, in the wake of a tragedy no couple should have to endure. But Max typically shuts her out of his life, secretly blaming her for the loss they have sustained and refuses to participate in therapy. Curiously, Lucy does not seek a counselor on her own. Rather, she abandons her attempts to get through to Max and retreats to Nantucket. Emotionally adrift and tragically jealous of Kate, who has given birth to a beautiful baby girl, Abby, Lucy turns to Chip for comfort. Although it is certainly a convenient and obvious plot point, it is also a logical one.
What is not immediately obvious is the impact Lucy’s choices have on her family, as well as Kate and Chip’s marriage. Thayer leads the reader to an uneasy suspicion about the consequences of Lucy’s actions that is, tragically, eventually confirmed. Rather than providing a shocking, unforeseen plot development, Thayer provides one that is predictable. The reading pleasure comes not from guessing the outcome, but observing how the characters deal with it once it is revealed.
That is where Between Husbands and Friends falters. Lucy is compelled to reveal the truth for the sake of all concerned. The reactions of the other characters do not ring true, however, especially in Max’s case. His behavior is inconsistent with the man the reader has come to know up to that point. Since he has a well-documented history of depression that leads to withdrawal, his response is not believable and, for that reason, Thayer allows her story to slide into the kind of melodramatic cliche from which she had, at least up to that point, judiciously steered clear. To her credit, it is mercifully brief and the novel, as a whole, survives her foray into a plot detour worthy of any daytime soap opera.
Between Husbands and Friends is ultimately an exploration of two key themes: What it means to be a parent and love an innocent child unconditionally, despite what the adults in that child have intentionally or unintentionally wrought; and our capacity to forgive when we truly love. Thayer’s thesis — that human relationships can survive virtually any challenge if they are, at the outset, strong enough — is explored through the story of four flawed adults who, despite their shortcomings, care for each other deeply but love their children boundlessly. That is why Lucy is, from the reader’s perspective, a forgivable “every woman.” As parents and marital partners, the reader can relate, if not to Lucy’s specific behavior, to her self-doubt and smaller scale failures. Between Husbands and Friends succeeds because it is fun to read about characters to whom one can relate on a variety of levels, all the while realizing that, despite one’s own problems, at least they aren’t as monumental as those the characters are facing. Thayer also wisely brings the story to a believable, but not full resolution, leaving the reader to ponder the characters’ fate. Humpty Dumpty’s pieces can be glued back in place, but there will always be visible lines where those pieces of him were fit neatly back together. So, it seems, it will be with Lucy, Max, and company.
If you’re looking for an engrossing book about the frailty but resilience of human relationships to read this summer while on the beach, by the pool, on a mountain top . . . or while enjoying the shade of a lovely tree in your own backyard, Between Husband and Friends fits the bill.