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Secret Lives of Husbands and Wives
By Josie Brown
Downtown PressCopyright © 2010 Josie Brown
All right reserved.
Thursday, 7:32 p.m.
You know how I hate to gossip, but . . .”
That is how Brooke Bartholomew always begins before she launches into a piece of hearsay. She knows and I know (for that matter, everyone knows) that she is the most notorious gossipmonger in our gated community of Paradise Heights.
So, yes, this will be juicy.
“Don't be such a tease,” I answer. “Just spill it.”
“It's about DeeDee and Harry Wilder,” she whispers. “They've split up. For good!”
Her tone has me looking around to see if the leads in Brooke's drama are within hearing distance. But it's hard to tell because it is dark, and everyone, even the adults, is in costume. Witches, Harry Potters, Shreks, and vampires zigzag across Bougainvillea Boulevard, lugging king-size 300-count pima cotton pillowcases filled with all kinds of individually wrapped miniature candy bars. For Brooke, it is not just Halloween but Christmas too: her husband, Benjamin, is Paradise Heights's dentist and will reap what Hershey's has sown.
I check to see that my daughter, Olivia, is out of earshot but still within sight. To my chagrin, she and her posse of five-year-olds are racing up the circular staircase of the Hendricksons' New Orleans?style McMansion. All the girls are dressed as fairies, which in Halloweenspeak translates into gossamer wings and long tulle skirts over leotards. It is inevitable that one of them will slip, fall, and cry, so I cannot take my eyes off them, even to gauge the veracity of Brooke's raw data. For the first time tonight I notice that Temple, DeeDee and Harry's younger child, is not one of the winged creatures flittering in the crush in front of me.
The nickname given the Wilders by my very own clique, the board of the Paradise Heights Women's League, comes to mind: the Perfect Couple. Until now, it fit like a glove. Both DeeDee and Harry are tall, golden, patrician, and aloof. They are Barbie and Ken dolls come to life. Rounding out the family is their thirteen-year-old son, Jake, the star of the Paradise Heights Middle School basketball team. Our older boy, Tanner, is part of his entourage, as is Brooke's son, Marcus. Temple is exactly Olivia's age. With those gilt coiling ringlets and that dimpled smile, Temple is not just the kindergarten set's unabashed leader but beautiful as well, which is why all the other little girls aspire to be her.
While the Wilders seem friendly enough during the social gatherings that put them in close proximity to the rest of us mere mortals, they never engage, let alone mingle. In Harry's case, I presume he thinks his real lifethat is, his office lifeis too foreign for us to grasp: he is a senior partner in the international securities division of a large law firm, where every deal trails a long tail of zeros. But DeeDee has no such excuse. She doesn't work, yet she pointedly ignores our invitations to lunch, preferring to spend the precious hours between school drop-off and pickup gliding through the posh little shops on Paradise Heights's bustling Main Street. Heck, even the Heights's working mommies try harder to fit in. The overflow crowd at the Women's League Christmas party is proof of that, as are the numerous corporate sponsorships they secure for the school district's annual golf tournament fund-raiser.
Proving yet again that mommy guilt is the greatest of all human motivators.
And now that the Wilders' crisis has been exposed to the masses, DeeDee's force field will stay up permanently, for sure.
“No way! The Wilders?” I say to Brooke. “Why, I just saw them together last weekend, at the club. He didn't leave her side even once. And I know for a fact that DeeDee was at the school yesterday, for the Halloween costume contest.” Although I wasn't there, Ted, my husband, mentioned seeing her. I stayed home with our younger son, Mickey, who has a nasty case of head lice, the scourge of the elementary school set. Not fun at any time, but doubly distressing to a nine-year-old boy on a day in which all class work is suspended in honor of a candy orgy.
To get his mind off what he was missing, Mickey and I spent the morning carving two more pumpkins to join the family of five already displayed on our steps and spraying a spiderweb of Silly String on the porch banister. Ted, who is too fastidious to appreciate our haphazard handiwork, has elicited promises from us both that all of this sticky substance will be pulled off first thing tomorrow morning, before it has time to erode the nice new paint job on our faux-Victorian.
Now, as I keep watch over Olivia's raid on the neighbors' candy stashes, Ted is at home with Mickey, parsimoniously doling out mini Mounds bars. Despite having purchased forty bags of the stuff, neither of us will be surprised if we run out long before the last trick-or-treater has come and gone. That is the downside to having a house that is smack-dab in the middle of Bougainvillea Boulevard, where all things pertaining to Paradise Heights begin and end. Because of this, poor Mickey will have to share whatever goodies Tanner and Olivia bring home. I don't look forward to the fight that breaks out over who gets the Godiva candy bar and who is left with the smashed caramel apple.
“Yeah, well, apparently it happened yesterday morning. From what I heard, he came home early from work so that he wouldn't miss the Halloween paradeand found her in bed with another man.” Brooke waves her little hellion, Benjamin Jr., on toward his older brother, Marcus, who has been trying all night to ditch the kid. Having been an only child, Brooke cannot accept the notion that a thirteen-year-old wouldn't want to hang with his only sibling, especially one seven years his junior.
Frankly, I think all of Brooke's energy would be better spent on some therapy over her own traumas. “My God! That's horrible! Do you think it's for real?”
“Who knows? For that matter, who cares?” Brooke arches a cleanly plucked brow. “Anyway that's the rumor, and it's too good not to be true, so I'm sticking with it. Besides, Colleen was behind Harry in line at Starbucks this morning. She overheard him bickering with DeeDee on his cell. Seems she's asked for a divorce, but he's fighting her for everything: the kids, the houseeven the dog! In fact, he also told one of his partners that he planned to cut back his hours at work to prove he should be the one to get full custody. Look, I say where there's smoke, there's fire.”
And they say that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned? Bullshit. What guy wouldn't go for the throat, particularly one who's just been made a laughingstock in the neighborhood?
Frankly, I can't really blame him, since I'd do exactly the same thing. Still, I wonder what he'll do if he does get it all. I'm of the theory that househusbands are born, not made. And they are certainly not made from high-powered corporate attorneys like Harry Wilder, who live for the thrill of the deal.
But I don't say this to Brooke, who wears her sistah solidarity on her silk Cavalli sleeve. If what she says is true, then there is no reason to feel sorry for DeeDee in the first place. Harry is the one we should pity, since he has no idea what he's in for. I'm willing to bet he'll reconsider his stance the first time Jake needs to be carpooled to basketball at the same time Temple has to be at ballet and it's not until they are halfway there that she tells him she's forgotten her tights.
“So, who is DeeDee's boyfriend?”
Frustrated because her reconnaissance is incomplete in this one very important area, Brooke's perfect moue of a mouth turns down at the sides. This is what passes for a frown when your social calendar revolves around standing appointments for Botox and collagen injections. “Since neither of them is talking, your guess is as good as mine. But don't worry, I've got my spies working on it.” She winks broadly.
That trail might be cold right now, but she is a good enough gossip hound that I've no doubt we'll know the answer by the end of the week.
As we pass DeeDee and Harry's authentic-looking Tuscan villa, I notice that all the lights are off and the bougainvillea-wrapped wrought-iron gates are locked. The Wilders did not even leave out the requisite consolation: a plastic pumpkin filled with candy and sporting a sign that begs visitors to TAKE JUST ONE AND LEAVE THE REST FOR OTHERS.
Once again, Brooke is right: there is trouble in Paradise Heights.
© 2010 Josie Brown
Excerpted from Secret Lives of Husbands and Wives by Josie Brown Copyright © 2010 by Josie Brown. Excerpted by permission.
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Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Secret Lives of Husbands and Wives by Josie Brown includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Lyssa Harper has it all: a comfortable home in the exclusive neighborhood of Paradise Heights, a handsome and successful husband, and beautiful kids. But bubbling beneath the exterior of her enviable life, and the lives of her close friends, is a web of gossip, cheating, lies, and scandal. When the neighborhood’s most attractive power couple breaks up, Lyssa finds herself drawn to the newly single Harry Wilder. As the bond between Harry and Lyssa grows, rumors begin to spread, and the long repressed tensions in the quiet enclave of Paradise Heights boil to the surface. Friends become enemies, charity events and middle-school basketball games become battlefields, and the secret lives of husbands and wives are finally exposed.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. The town of Paradise Heights is portrayed as an upscale enclave for mostly upper-income families. What did you think of the author’s portrayal of the people in this town? Do you admire or condemn them? Envy them for all of their material wealth, or pity them for the emotional balance they lack? Or both?
2. Why do you think Lyssa is so drawn to Harry Wilder at the beginning of the novel? Does she really just feel sorry for him, or is she projecting her own childhood experience with divorce on his circumstance? How are both Lyssa’s and Harry’s experiences with divorce different, and how are they similar?
3. Lyssa spends most of her time socializing with the women who make up the executive board of the Paradise Heights Women’s League. They are depicted mostly as villains in the novel—especially their ringleader, Margot. In fact, the league board is called “the Coven” by those less-popular mommies they’ve nicknamed “the Undesirables,” and all of them have been given nicknames of fairy-tale witches. What, if anything, is attractive about the power wielded by the members of this cruel clique? From where do you think they derive their power?
4. Do you think that all the members of Paradise Heights Women’s League are equally guilty of bad social behavior? Does a follower like, say, Colleen, who silently allows Margot to behave atrociously, deserve just as much blame as the queen bee herself?
5. At times, the character of Lyssa seems both needy and eager-to-please. Her friend Brooke likens her to a puppy, saying, “If someone scratched your belly, you’d never leave their lap” (page 262). How do you think Lyssa changes over the course of the novel? What role does her relationship with Harry play in that transformation?
6. Many of the adults in the novel seem less well-behaved than their children, and Lyssa spends a lot of time worrying about the example that she and the rest of the adults in her social circle are setting for their children. They get into fights at basketball games, and shamelessly throw themselves at the husbands of their friends. How did you feel about the way the adults in this novel conducted themselves? Have you personally witnessed similar behaviors in a social setting? Did you think less of Lyssa for surrounding herself with people who acted the way they did? Would you consider Lyssa a good parent?
7. What did you think of the way Ted withheld intimacy from Lyssa and then used it as a means of marking his territory when he became jealous of Lyssa’s relationship with Harry? Did you find it odd that Lyssa admittedly enjoyed being used by Ted as a way of his proving his dominance over Harry?
8. At one point, Lyssa’s mother questions her daughter’s need to have married “The One.” And DeeDee very pointedly remarks that, “no marriage is perfect.” Almost every relationship in the novel is unstable. What do you think is the author’s opinion of marriage? Would it surprise you to learn that she has been happily married to the same man for more than twenty years, and that like her, he is a journalist who covers relationship trends?
9. Is it significant that DeeDee is the only one who admits—and acts on the fact—that her marriage made her unhappy?
10. Lyssa is concerned that Harry may be labeled an “Undesirable” and, admittedly, dreads it for herself. Do you think that the need for the approval and admiration of our peers can ever be overcome? Can a person be truly happy with themselves without some sort of recognition from others, or will we always need to be noticed in order to be happy with ourselves?
11. As a character, Lyssa can be a little judgmental. She is quick to find fault with her friends and to point out when they’re in denial. And yet, she is blind to the problems in her own life. Are most people better at finding faults with others than at looking within? Why?
12. What is the significance of Lyssa’s relationship with her mother and father? How do you think the example of her parents’ marriage affected the way she handled her own romantic relationships with both Ted and Harry? How does the news that her father didn’t abandon her help Lyssa to reevaluate her views on love and relationships?
13. The Paradise Heights basketball team plays a game at a rival school that displays a banner in its gym, reading: “We Own You.” How do you think the wealth of some of the characters in this book influences their views of the world? How does it affect their children?
14. Although the novel takes place in an exclusive community, a place where most people could never afford to live, are there certain commonalities you noticed between the characters in this book, and the less elite? What sorts of problems transcend class barriers?
15. How did you feel about the way the novel ended? Were you at all upset that Lyssa immediately jumped from a marriage with Ted to a marriage with Harry? Did you want her to strike out on her own and prove her independence? What did you think of the way Lyssa’s relationship with Ted was concluded? Did you want him to get more of a comeuppance?
Enhance Your Book Club
• Each chapter begins with a quote about love and relationships. Which quote was your favorite? Did any hit particularly close to home? Have you received any advice in your own life that rivals the advice offered in these quotes?
• The mean-mommy clique is part of a long-hallowed literary and film tradition that depicts the cattiness with which some women treat one another. Watch, read, and discuss other books and movies that depict similarly icy relationships between women (e.g. anything by Jane Austen, Edit Wharton; Jane Eyre, Cinderella, Mean Girls, Heathers, The Women; etc.). Discuss how you think these portrayals of female-on-female emotional violence affect societal views of women.
• One of the many ways that women in this book jockey for social superiority is through their baking skills (think of DeeDee’s gingerbread man triumph over Lyssa). Have a friendly bake-off of your own and see who can bake the best treat for your book club.
• Go to www.josiebrown.com for information on the author’s previous novels, her reading events, and to download additional book club questions, or to invite her to teleconference with your book club.