Marriage is a challenge under the best of circumstances—devoting your life to one person for all of eternity, through better or worse, richer or poorer, driving through Midwestern storms and facing your husband’s mistress in a foreign country.
OK, those last two examples aren’t found in most wedding vows. But they are found in two new books that examine the darker corners of marriage. Call it the domestic suspense genre.
In Siracusa, the incomparable Delia Ephron introduces us to couples Michael and Lizzie and Finn and Taylor. The foursome is traveling to Italy together, along with Finn and Taylor’s precocious daughter, Snow. These people, it must be said, have absolutely no business traveling together.
Michael, a semi-famous playwright who has struggled to recapture the magic of his early professional success, has been cheating on Lizzie with a waitress. Finn and Taylor barely speak other than to argue about Snow, an impressionable preteen who idolizes Michael. Finn and Lizzie, who used to date, still have an undeniable spark. Meanwhile, Michael tries to hide the fact that the woman he’s sleeping with has unexpectedly turned up at their hotel in the rundown Sicilian town of Siracusa.
Add a whole lot of Italian wine to the inevitable illicit sex and bitter secrets, and a recipe for the perfect vacation this is not. When Snow goes missing, the families reach their boiling point, and harsh, irreversible truths emerge. This is a thrilling, perfectly paced and deeply satisfying read by a masterful writer.
Listen to Me is a much quieter—but no less impactful—book by the acclaimed author of Reunion and The Fates Will Find Their Way, Hannah Pittard. Laced with dreadful anticipation, Listen to Me is a spot-on depiction of the creep factor of road trips, with their desolate rest stops and weird encounters with strangers.
Mark and Maggie are driving from their Chicago home to his parents’ Virginia farm. Maggie was recently attacked on the street near their home, the butt of a gun to the back of her head leaving her unconscious and with lingering psychological trauma. She finds herself withdrawn from her life as a wife and veterinarian, reading the news online, compulsively seeking the worst in her fellow humans. Mark struggles to be patient with Maggie’s recovery, and to resist the furtive email come-ons from his lovely teaching assistant who seems so, well, normal in comparison to his damaged wife.
The road trip is meant to help them reconnect. They don’t realize when they hit the road that they’re driving straight into a powerful storm slicing its way through the Midwest. When the couple hits a total blackout in West Virginia, they hunker down for the night in a remote hotel. Mark takes their dog out for a pre-dawn walk, and a parking lot confrontation turns ugly, forcing Maggie to reckon with her own deep-seated fears.
As Pittard writes, evil—sometimes anonymous, sometimes known—not only exists, it thrives. Both books are gorgeously written sketches of marriages gone sour, and reminders that sometimes the scariest bogeymen are the ones in our own minds.
It’s Private Eye July at BookPage! All month long, we’re celebrating the sinister side of fiction with the year’s best mysteries and thrillers. Look for the Private Eye July magnifying glass for a daily dose of murder, espionage and all those creepy neighbors with even creepier secrets.