What if your spouse went missing for seven years then apparently returns – only it’s not him, and this person who claims to be the man you loved appears to have a mysterious, vindictive agenda?
I sat up past midnight gulping this book, forgetting I had work the next day.
I didn’t plan to write a full review, mostly because I can’t do that without spoilers.
Suffice to say, on the best seller, airport reading level, essentially it’s a nightmare, gender-reversed version of the Hollywood staple My Favorite Wife/Something’s Gotta Give/Move Over Darling, though the author casts it in terms of classic dark folk tales, primarily Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. There are chips of ice in the heart. Lost love. Dark woods and winding paths.
On serious levels, it’s a meditation on love, guilt, and memory. On marriage. With Radiohead as its soundtrack. (The beloved also loved Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave and Tom Waits. There might be an echo of Orpheus and Eurydice here.)
The novel is rich in allusions: The Return of Martin Guerre, the 1982 French film starring Gerard Depardieu, based on a sixteenth-century incident. Sommersby, the 1993 Hollywood remake starring Jodie Foster and Richard Gere. Homer’s Penelope and Odysseus. The scar on Odysseus’s thigh, the testimony of the aged dog, the knowingness of the marital bed.
Is this man who returns to Sarah, Philip? (The names are significant: Phil being the ancient Greek etymology for ‘love; lover’; Sarah meaning ‘princess’, which was Philip’s nickname for her. There is also the shadow figure, Vincent. Vincent means ‘conqueror’.) Is this man her husband? Or is he a psychopath? Or is this stranger both?
I kept thinking of Hamlet. Hamlet is on a mission of revenge. He is fuelled with righteous rage, based on his belief in murder, conspiracy and betrayal. Yet Hamlet is uncertain. Uncertainty stays his hand. Who is this woman, this woman he claims as his wife?
When I outlined this plot to my sister, she insisted even after twenty years apart she could never not recognise her husband. She could never confuse her husband with a stranger. No ambiguity.
Melanie Raabe stacks the decks to create a plausible context. But her central inquiry – who is the person I married? who is the person I claim to love? – resonates broadly.
I’m not so certain myself.