THE LOVE OF MY LIFE by Rosie Walsh, Pamela Dorman Books, 384 pages, $28
Everybody who is married is married to a stranger. That’s the central premise of just about every domestic suspense novel ever written. In stories with these marriages, such as Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, at least one partner (and sometimes both) has silently vowed to “love, honor, and deceive, till death do us part.”
The Love of My Life is a classic example of the “I married a stranger” domestic suspense plot — with a twist. Usually, the partner with a secret triggers suspicion in us canny readers early on. (That Maxim de Winter guy is too aloof, too insistent on having his own way to be without a tangled past.) But, Emma Merry Bigelow, the enigmatic heroine of Rosie Walsh’s The Love of My Life, seems so funny, warm, compassionate, and kind that we readers root for her — even though we learn fairly quickly that she’s living under an assumed name and harbors a host of other secrets, something her adoring husband, Leo, doesn’t know about. Walsh just may have written the first domestic suspense novel in which the deceitful spouse is also a genuinely nice person. Maybe.
Walsh, whose 2018 debut thriller, Ghosted, was a bestseller, splits the first-person narration of this story chiefly between Leo and Emma. In the novel’s opening pages, Leo proudly tells us that his wife is an “intertidal ecologist, which means she studies the places and creatures that are submerged at high tide and exposed at low.” (Suspense metaphor alert!) Leo also affirms that Emma is a loving mom to their young daughter, Ruby, and their rescue dog named John Keats; she’s also a former star of a BBC series on marine wildlife and a recent cancer survivor. Then comes this kicker from Leo at the end of his opening testimonials:
“I think it was Kennedy who said we are tied to the ocean — that when we return to it, for sport or leisure or somesuch, we are returning to the place from whence we came. That’s how I feel about us. To be near to my wife, to Emma, is to return to source.
“So when I learn, in the days following this morning — this innocent, commonplace morning, with dogs and frogs and coffee ... — that I know nothing of this woman, it will break me.”
Leo stumbles on the first of his beloved wife’s fibs because of his job: He’s a writer on the obituaries desk at a British newspaper, a department, he insists, is “the most cheerful desk on the news floor,” because “we spend our time celebrating extraordinary people.” Obituaries of famous people who are getting on in years or who have had brushes with serious illnesses are written in advance. Such just-in-case obits are called “stock.” Because of Emma’s BBC fame and her cancer, now in remission, she warrants a “stock,” and Leo, as the person who knows her best, accepts the assignment to write it. As he begins researching the facts of his wife’s life — clandestinely, so as not to upset her — Leo stumbles upon some “submerged” fibs the size of the Rock of Gibraltar.
Meanwhile, Emma is cautiously confiding in us readers, too. Here, for instance, are her thoughts in response to her doctor’s suggestion that she write a cancer memoir:
“I’ve read endless cancer memoirs in the years following my diagnosis; some written from the warm shore of survival, others cut short by an end note from a bereaved relative. ... But every account ... has talked about love. About how, as we approach the end of our life, we find ourselves turning toward the things and people that are most meaningful to us.
“ ... My cancer journey, by shameful contrast, started four years ago with the rekindling of an obsession that could end my marriage. It’s been about fear of discovery and deep regret. It is something I could never commit to paper, or Facebook, or anywhere else.”
In a sense, the chapters of The Love of My Life that are narrated by Emma constitute her own alternate cancer memoir: her account of that obsession and its backstory. Along the way, at least three contenders for “the love of [her] life” surface.
As appealing as the characters of Emma and Leo are, the essential draw of a domestic suspense story such as this one is its plot. Walsh concocts a doozy. Her narrative is studded with evasively worded passages that lure us readers into dead ends, switchback turns, false sutures between scenes, and a startling final climax. All that passes for reality is unstable in The Love of My Life. By novel’s end, readers may even begin to wonder whether the name of that cute family dog, John Keats, is also an alias.