Catherine Todd’s previous book, Exit Strategies, featured a stereotypical conniving second wife who schemed to keep the heroine from receiving the child support she was due from her ex-husband. In her latest novel, Todd lets a second wife speak for herself – and the picture she paints is far from rosy. Secret Lives of Second Wives is an admirable plea for empathy for the often unjustly maligned second spouse, but Todd’s trademark wisecracking is almost overshadowed by her heroine’s overwhelming problems. I found myself reading the novel in small pieces because it was too gloomy to take in larger bites.
“I thought all I had to do was be nice to everybody and we’d all get along,” laments Lynn Bartlett about the challenges she faces as a second wife. It’s been a year since Lynn left her home in southern California for the San Francisco Bay Area so she could marry Jack Hughes, and she’s growing increasingly frustrated with the marriage. Both of Jack’s grown children are hostile to her, and Jack has just given his unemployed son permission to move in with them without first consulting Lynn. Jack’s ex-wife shows up uninvited at the birthday party Lynn throws for Jack and seems to delight in undermining the couple’s relationship.
The situation reaches the breaking point when Jack’s daughter demands that he pay for an expensive wedding although his business is facing financial ruin. Meanwhile, Lynn, an attorney specializing in immigration cases, copes with her own professional crisis caused by an unscrupulous associate. Just as she starts wishing that Jack would be more assertive with his ex-wife and children, she finds herself attracted to a handsome Russian immigrant client. Lynn looks for answers from the Anne Boleyn Society, a support group for second wives Is there a way to make a second marriage succeed or is hers doomed to be one of the 50% that fail?
Todd paints a realistic, insightful picture of the challenges faced by second wives. “You imagine experiencing your life together as something new, but instead it becomes a series of linked vignettes that are something to be compared to,” Lynn notes. “It’s like walking onto the stage in the middle of the play, when all the other actors know their lines except you.” And Lynn has certainly inherited a difficult situation. Jack’s children and ex-wife are almost over the top in their hostility and whininess, and it’s hard to understand how Lynn deals with them so patiently for so long. You want her to find her spine much sooner than she does because the dumping becomes almost unbearable.
Lynn’s professional problems are almost a relief to read about in comparison, although at times they too seem devastating. In addition to her writing career, Todd develops specialized immigration petitions, so her description of the issues that Lynn confronts are fascinatingly accurate. The impact of the Bay Area dot-com bust on the immigration situation is ironic; during the technology boom, computer-literate immigrants were in high demand, but once the jobs started drying up, their status became much more tenuous. All of this is played out through the very appealing character of Alexei Strela, who develops a bittersweet relationship with Lynn. The story is refreshingly unpredictable – I wasn’t really sure until the final chapters what decision Lynn would make about the men in her life.
Unfortunately, the Anne Boleyn Society, an intriguing concept, is underdeveloped. Other than Lynn’s best friend Kay, none of the other members make much of an impression. The book would have benefited from a few more scenes featuring their meetings and interactions to show how their influence strengthens Lynn’s resolve.
Lynn loses her idealism, but ends the novel with a greater understanding of the steps she needs to take to ensure her own happiness. While Secret Lives of Second Wives sometimes falters under the weight of its own pathos, readers who appreciate realistic Women’s Fiction will root for Lynn to triumph over her many obstacles. Todd has written more enjoyable books, but perhaps none that are as heartfelt as this one.