“Local police have announced that they’re closing the investigation of the suspected drowning of 37-year-old painter Colleen Westcott. She disappeared on April 11, 2010, and her car was found parked near the waterfront in Cleveland two days later, but her body has never been found. The chief of police has stated that no concrete evidence of foul play has been discovered in the probe.”
I close the online search window, annoyed. These articles never have enough detail. They think my husband’s first wife disappeared or they think she is dead. There’s a big difference.
My phone rings, jarring me away from my thoughts, and when I pick it up, it’s an unknown number. The only answer to my slightly breathless “hello” is empty static.
When the voice does finally come, it’s female, low, muffled somehow. “Where is it, Claire? What did you do with it? Tell me where it is.”
A woman. A real flesh-and-blood woman on the other end of the phone. She’s not just in my head.
A wave of panic spreads under my skin like ice water. It’s Colleen.
Nina Laurin, author of Girl Last Seen and What My Sister Knew, says she is “fascinated by the darker side of mundane things, and she’s always on the lookout for her next twisted book idea.” “Twisted” is a great way to describe The Starter Wife. “Twisty” also applies because Laurin employs plot twists, surprising developments, and misdirection to maximum effect to compel the story forward as readers try to discern the difference between reality and her unreliable lead character’s imagination. Laurin says the book was inspired by a soap opera and horror novel with “absolutely nothing in common. And if you read/watched them now, you’d never guess this is where the idea came from, because it became pretty much unrecognizable by the time I wrote The Starter Wife.”
Colleen Westcott’s disappearance has never been fully solved. Was it murder? Suicide? Or is she still alive, but missing? Her body has never been recovered. Claire Westcott is married to Colleen’s husband, Byron, a professor of literature at the same small college where Colleen also taught. Bryon was, of course, a person of interest in the investigation into Colleen’s death, but no charges were ever brought against him. Claire and Byron began dating five years ago after they met at an alumni event. Claire had been one of his students. They married after a whirlwind courtship, and Claire is supposed to be writing a book while Byron is teaching, but the rejections from publishers are numerous and continuing to arrive.
Through a first-person narrative, Claire describes her life with Byron and what it’s like to live in the shadow of his presumably dead first wife. Her paintings hang on the walls of the house she shares with Byron — the same house in which he resided with Colleen. The same furniture fills the home, including their bedroom. Claire relates, “Colleen may have died but she never left. The fact that we live in her house is hard to forget. Just like the fact that we live off her sizable savings, which went to her husband when she died since she had no other family. Byron never directly said so, but I known that’s how he’s able to support his future Virginia Woolf while maintaining our lifestyle, all on his generous but not exactly millionaire’s salary at the college.” Their attempts to have a child have not been successful, Claire is drinking far too much, and it appears that Byron has lost interest in and patience with her. He is spending more and more time away from home, and when he’s there, he’s distant. Claire suspects that he is having an affair with one of his students. To compensate for the sometimes dark days in Colleen’s house, Claire buys things she doesn’t need. “I tell myself it’s my petty revenge against Byron, but really it’s my revenge against Colleen, as if wasting some of her money can make up for the thousand little humiliations I suffer.”
Against that backdrop, in addition to the telephone call that Claire is convinced is from Colleen, she receives an email that simply disappears from her in-box. “It’s gone like it was never there. . . . Clearly, I’m going crazy. Ha ha. Imagining emails that never were.” Desperate to hold onto Byron and their marriage, Claire becomes determined to solve the mystery of Colleen’s disappearance. Once she hacks into Byron’s email account, however, she becomes suspicious of him. She also follows the young coed with whom she thinks Byron has been unfaithful, and confides in one of his colleagues about their marital problems. But when she proposes and tries to lure him into an elaborate scheme to obtain hormone treatments in an unhinged attempt to conceive a child, the colleague is understandably alarmed and bolts. A narrative from an unidentified third party, addressing Byron, appears to be stalking Claire. Who is she?
Laurin keeps readers off-balance as she takes them on an uncomfortable journey into Claire’s thoughts. She struggles with self-doubt related to body image and her failure to succeed as a writer, in addition to the stress of living with a husband who seems to have never gotten past his first wife’s disappearance. Is Claire merely a stand-in wife to Byron? Or does he really love her, but is emotionally unable to fully move forward with his life after the trauma of losing his first wife? Since Byron is obviously damaged and unable to fully commit himself to their marriage, why is Claire so obsessed with him and hellbent on staying in the relationship?
Whether Claire is a victim or a deeply disturbed villain is unclear until her estranged sister arrives, and the truth about Claire’s past is gradually revealed. From that juncture, the book’s pace accelerates and the story races to an explosive conclusion.
Laurin distinguishes herself in a crowded field of female authors publishing psychological thrillers. Although none of Laurin’s characters are particularly likable, and certainly not empathetic, each is fascinating in her/her own right, and The Starter Wife is thoroughly entertaining. She clearly enjoys presenting a fact with certainty, only to insert doubt a few chapters later, and employs that technique expertly in this story. Right up to the end of the book. in fact, which readers should not be surprised to find mired in ambiguity and intertwined in the sly commentary she injects about social media through the depiction of chatter among Byron’s students on an internet forum. The Starter Wife is an excellent choice for a summer afternoon read by the pool or on the beach, as well as a spirited book club discussion.
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