“Love of my lifeis a classic example of the domestic thriller “I married a stranger” – with a twist. Usually the partner with a secret triggers suspicion in us wise readers early on. (This type of Maxim de Winter too aloof, too insistent on having her own way of being without a tangled past.) But, Emma Merry Bigelow, the enigmatic heroine of Rosie Walsh’s “Love of My Life,” seems so funny, warm, compassionate, and kind that we readers support for her – even if we learn fairly quickly that she lives under an assumed name and harbors a host of other secrets, something that her adoring husband, Leo, does not know. maybe to write the first domestic thriller in which the cheating spouse is also a really nice person.
Walsh, whose first thriller of 2018, “Phantomwas a bestseller, splits the first-person narration of this story primarily between Leo and Emma. In the opening pages of the novel, Leo proudly tells us that his wife is an “intertidal ecologist, meaning she studies places and creatures that are submerged at high tide and exposed at low tide.” (Suspense metaphor alert!) Leo also claims that Emma is a loving mother to their young daughter, Ruby, and their rescue dog named John Keats; she is also a former star of a BBC series on marine wildlife and a recent cancer survivor. Next is this kicker from Leo at the end of his opening testimonials:
“I think it was Kennedy who said that we are connected to the ocean – that when we go back to it, for sport or recreation or something, we go back to where we came from. . That’s how I feel about us. To be close to my wife, to Emma, is to go back to basics.
“So when I learn, in the days following this morning – this innocent, mundane morning, with dogs and frogs and coffee… – that I know nothing about this woman, it will break me.”
Leo comes across his beloved wife’s first canard because of his work: he is an obituary editor at a British newspaper, a department, he insists, that is “the happiest office in writing,” because “we spend our time celebrating amazing people. The obituaries of famous people who are aging or who have had contact with serious illnesses are written in advance. These just in case obituaries are called “stock”. Because of Emma’s BBC fame and her cancer, now in remission, she deserves a “stock”, and Leo, as the person who knows her best, accepts the assignment to write her. As he begins to research the facts of his wife’s life – clandestinely, so as not to upset her – Leo comes across “submerged” lies the size of the Rock of Gibraltar.
Meanwhile, Emma also cautiously confides in us readers. Here, for example, are his thoughts in response to his doctor’s suggestion that he write a memoir on cancer:
“I have read countless memoirs about cancer in the years since my diagnosis; some written from the warm shore of survival, others interrupted by an endnote from a bereaved parent. … But every account … talked about love. About how, as we approach the end of our lives, we turn to the things and people that matter most to us.
“…My cancer journey, in shameful contrast, began four years ago with the awakening of an obsession that could end my marriage. It was fear of being found out and deep regret. It’s something I could never entrust to the paper, or Facebook, or anywhere else.
In a sense, the chapters of “The Love of My Life” recounted by Emma are her own alternate memoirs of cancer: her account of this obsession and her backstory. Along the way, at least three contenders for “the love of [her] living area”.
As appealing as the characters of Emma and Leo are, the essential appeal of a domestic thriller like this is its plot. Walsh cooks up a doozy. His narrative is peppered with evasive words that lure readers into dead ends, backward turns, faux seams between scenes, and a surprising final climax. Everything that passes for reality is unstable in “The Love of My Life”. By the end of the novel, readers may even begin to wonder if this cute family dog’s name, John Keats, is also a pseudonym.
Maureen Corrigan, book reviewer for NPR’s “Fresh Air” program, teaches literature at Georgetown University.
Books by Pamela Dorman. 384 pages. $28