Why We Can’t Get Enough of Twisted Marriage Thrillers

A new wave of bestselling novels depict the dark side of marriage with secretive husbands and betrayed couples. Lucy Scholes on what they reveal about matrimony today—and their literary ancestors.

You’d have to have been hiding under a rock to have not heard that the “marriage thriller” is the latest publishing phenomena—psychological page-turners that subvert the “happily ever after” formula of classic chic lit—hence their other moniker, “chic noir”—turning the mundanity of the domestic sphere into a hotbed of betrayal, secrets, and lies. Gillian Flynn’s runaway success Gone Girl—it had huge sales in both the US and the UK last year, and is currently being adapted into a film starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike—is often cited as the novel that kicked off the trend, with the likes of word-of-mouth bestsellers A.S.A Harrison’s The Silent Wife and S. J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, not to mention the less well known but equally creepy How to Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman, further proof of the genre’s popularity. And, looking at this year’s new releases, the tide doesn’t seem to be turning yet.

Marketed as the UK’s answer to Gone Girl, Lucie Whitehouse’s Before We Met has just hit bookstores. Two Brits, Hannah and Mark meet while working in New York. Mark sweeps Hannah off her feet, and a year later they’re married and living together in Mark’s beautiful West London home. Having snared the perfect man, Hannah can’t believe how lucky she is, but then one day Mark doesn’t make it home from a business trip, and in the space of a few hours Hannah’s life unravels as the husband she thought she knew is proven to be a liar and master manipulator. Before We Met is truly formulaic in every sense of the word, but it’s an easy read and will go some way in filling the Gone Girl shaped hole in Flynn fans’ lives. By contrast, next month sees the publication of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s You Should Have Known, a significantly superior addition to the genre. Grace Sachs, an established and respected New York therapist is about to publish her first self-help book You Should Have Known: Why Women Fail to Hear What the Men in Their Lives are Telling Them—trust your intuition about men, she tells her patients, and don’t be surprised when your frog doesn’t magically turn into a prince. Lo and behold, of course, she’d do well to heed her own advice, as her supposedly devoted husband Jonathan, a hard-working pediatric oncologist to whom she’s been married for twenty years, turns out to have been leading a secret double life which, as it comes crashing down around them, threatens to destroy her and their son. Looking ahead to the summer, although devoid of some of the more classic thriller elements, fans of this genre might also want to keep an eye out for Natalie Young’s Season to Taste: or How to Eat Your Husband. Not one for the faint hearted or the weak stomached, Young’s murderous heroine sets about disposing of her husband’s body the only way she can think how, with unsavory results.

It’s clear that marriage thrillers are having a moment, and this, of course, begs the question, why now? Writing on the subject in the Guardian’s books blog, Whitehouse argues that it has to do with two things: firstly, more women are marrying later and thus it’s about exploring the associated deep-rooted insecurities they might harbor regarding giving up their independence; and secondly, the fact that even in today’s exposure driven world, divulging secrets about a marriage is still off limits. “Marriage deals in the two things most frequently dissembled about, sex and money, and no one apart from the two people involved really knows the truth. For a psychological suspense writer, that’s pretty irresistible stuff,” she concludes. Interestingly, by focusing on the specific loss of female independence, she’s unconsciously referring to the fact that the vast majority of these books are written from a female perspective; Gone Girl and The Silent Wife do switch between that of the husband and wife involved, but it’s more common for the narrative to be restricted to the wife’s point of view alone. Indeed, thinking about it, one of the few novels narrated entirely by the husband involved that (loosely) fits the genre is Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915). Following the death of his wife and her lover, the guileless Dowell pieces together the “saddest story ever heard”, eventually revealing the depths of his wife’s emotional deception. It is indeed a singularly tragic story, but one absolutely devoid of the luridness of today’s versions. So perhaps Whitehouse is right, the marriage thrillers of today capture the zeitgeist in the same way that novels about matrimony always have. First came the proliferation of the Victorian marriage plot, the conclusion of the story was the loving couple’s wedding day and it was simply assumed that their subsequent life together would be a happy and content one. This slowly gave way to an authorial interest in the disillusionment of these fairy tales—from Madame Bovary, The Portrait of a Lady, and The Good Soldier through Richard Yates’s novels and Albee’s tormented couple George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—and finally, could today’s literature be expressing an outright reaction against this age-old institution? The fact they’re clearly written about and for women both propagates traditional stereotypes and subverts them. For although it would be too simplistic to see these thrillers as out-and-out warnings against getting hitched, surely the moral of the story is don’t relinquish your autonomy just because there’s a ring on your finger, there’s no such thing as a fairy tale ending.

Instead of being something radically new and of the moment, the marriage thriller is actually one of the oldest plots around. One of the most wonderful of them all has to be Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca, the story of the whirlwind romance between an unnamed young, naïve girl and the older, wealthy, sophisticated but brooding widower Maxim de Winter. Maxim marries his young bride and whisks her away to Manderley, his beautiful mansion in Cornwall, where she finds herself completely out of her depth, entrenched in a deadlocked battle with the ghost of Maxim’s beautiful and apparently perfect first wife, who perished in a sailing accident. Like today’s marriage thrillers, Rebecca was hugely popular on its publication but dismissed by contemporary critics as romantic “dope”: a “lowbrow story with a middlebrow finish”. In more recent years, however, the one-time “world-famous bestseller of love and suspense” has metamorphosed into a key twentieth-century feminist Gothic text, reclaimed by the once sneering literary establishment.

Gothic fiction was hugely popular in the late eighteenth-century, readers scaring themselves silly with stories of horror and terror such as Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian (1787), Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, and Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796). While some Gothic novels threw their heroines into terrible marriages, a more popular trope was the inclusion of an incest storyline—the threat inside the supposed sanctity of the family home—but most of these novels were somewhat removed from the everyday environment of their readers, European castles, for example, were a favoured setting. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that the Gothic was truly domesticated and marriage became a focal point; take Wilkie Collins’s sensationalist mysteries, Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, and, of course, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre — perhaps the original and still the best marriage thriller of them all (if you discount the story of Bluebeard, of course), Rochester keeps his first wife, now mad, locked away in the attic of his home Thornfield Hall while setting about wooing poor, plain Jane Eyre. More recently, Sarah Waters’s wonderful novel Fingersmith pastiches this classic Victorian trope of the evil, calculating husband abandoning his unsuspecting and helpless wife to a life of misery locked in an insane asylum—it’s a marriage thriller but, corseted in postmodernism with a lesbian love story at its heart, not as we know it.

Although marriage in the twenty-first century is a decidedly different proposition to its Victorian counterpart where a wife really was at the mercy of her husband in every sense of the term, quite literally regarded as his property to be done with as he saw fit, we’re still fascinated by the set-up. Towards the beginning of You Should Have Known Grace is being interviewed about her book by Vogue. “Marriage,” says the photographer sent by the magazine making small talk while he sets up for the shoot. “That’s a biggie. You’d think there wasn’t much left to say.”

“Always more to say,” replies the interviewer, and she’s clearly right. Today’s incarnations of the genre are trading on exactly the same uncanny effects, as explained by Freud, of their literary predecessors, and that’s what’s making us squirm. In essence the term “uncanny” is used to mean that which is unfamiliar, but the original German, das Unheimlich, can only be fully understood when juxtaposed against its counterpart, Heimlich: that which is familiar, homely, known and intimate. However, Heimlich can also be used to define something that is secret, concealed, unknown, or threatening. Freud quotes Grimms’ Dictionary from 1877: “from the idea of ‘homelike’, ‘belonging to the house’, the further idea is developed of something withdrawn from the eyes of strangers, something concealed, secret; and this idea is expanded in many ways…” In this apparent paradox, these linguistic opposites become identical: “Heimlich,” Freud argues, “is a word the meaning of which develops in the direction of ambivalence, until it finally coincides with the opposite, Unheimlich”. Marriage thrillers play with this specific ambivalence to great effect—they bring to life the moment of collision between the familiar and the unfamiliar, transforming the homely domestic environment into a haunted house full of secrets. The one place you should feel safe—your home—and the one person you should be safe with—your husband—become alien and threatening; something that is much more scary than all the unknown, unseen external terrors that one expects to be waiting in the dark. Indeed, in You Should Have Known, it’s the seemingly innocent sound of her husband’s Blackberry receiving an email that turns Grace’s world upside down: “She did not know enough to be afraid. Why be afraid of a familiar sound in a familiar place, even if hearing it made no sense?” The marriage thriller warns each and every one of us that things are not always what they appear to be, playing on our own, often deeply buried, insecurities and fears about the relationships most important to us.