Alice Hale is desperate to escape her life, but she never imagined freedom would mean leaving New York City for a dilapidated old house in the bedroom town of Greenville. She only agrees to her husband Nate’s desire to relocate to avoid telling him the truth about why she lost her cushy Manhattan public-relations job. But her fateful decision soon leads to more secrets with greater consequences for her marriage.
Sixty years earlier in the same Greenville house, Nellie Murdoch finds solace tending to her precious garden filled with eye-catching flowers – and a few poisonous plants. She’s wearing dungarees, a small act of rebellion against her husband Richard, who prefers her in dresses. From her neighbours’ perspective, Nellie is a proud homemaker and a stellar cook with an enviable domestic life. But appearances are not what they seem behind the doors at 173 Oakwood Drive.
So begins Karma Brown’s engaging fifth novel, Recipe for a Perfect Wife, a time-hopping story that proves revenge can be a dish served on good wedding china. Through her two alternating narratives, Brown explores how the fight for women’s autonomy has been a messy nonlinear progression without a finish line. Despite the years – and the rise of the feminist movement – that separate their stories, Alice and Nellie face similar challenges. The abuse Nellie endures is more dire than the pressure Alice receives around starting a family, but neither woman is in a financial position to demand what she wants. Both become isolated and withdraw emotionally to protect the facade of the “perfect wife.”
Initially, Alice feels alienated in suburbia. She tells Nate and anyone else who will listen that she spends her days working on a novel, but has yet to write a word. It’s not until Alice finds a dusty box of Nellie’s well-worn cookbooks and copies of Ladies’ Home Journal in the basement that she finds some purpose. She becomes obsessed with the previous owner of the cookbooks and 1950s housewife culture in general. She picks up smoking (secretly) and retro dresses from a local shop, and sets out to reproduce Nellie’s recipes for baked Alaska and chicken à la King. But if Betty Draper has taught us anything, it’s that a perfectly cooked roast and a chilled martini will never be a solution for marital woes.
Brown opens each chapter with one of Nellie’s recipes or a quote from a real vintage manual instructing women on the fine art of pleasing their husbands through purposeful subservience. According to these real-world sources, being a successful wife requires a military-like strategy. It’s an entertaining detail that also helps underscore the societal expectations Nellie faces, and why she chooses her ultimate means of escape. Alice, on the other hand, has a flawed sense of judgment and takes out her anger on others. But her mistakes serve the narrative well: it’s not just the good girl in the circle skirt who finds herself trapped in an unhappy situation.
Hidden behind the veneer of a domestic novel, Recipe for a Perfect Wife doubles as a slow-burning thriller with a satisfying conclusion. Through her exploration of the past, Brown delivers a timely message about the state of marriage today, and the many ways in which women continue to fight for control over their future.