The Astons had been the perfect upper-middle-class family – at least in terms of appearances – up until not so long ago. Stephen, the father was, and still is, a much-revered and celebrated heart surgeon. Pamela, his wife, was a deeply devoted and dutiful wife to Stephen and her two daughters, Tully and Rachel. Tully and Rachel consistently pleased their parents enormously. To top it all off, the family were fabulously wealthy, and lived in a mansion by the beach in Melbourne. Despite appearances, flimsy at the best of times, life for the picture-perfect Aston family was never as it seemed – and it still isn’t.
Such is the demonstrably captivating scenario that is resolutely depicted in bestselling Australian author, Sally Hepworth’s, latest iconic novel, “The Younger Wife”.
In the present, the Astons’ respectable upper-middle-class facade has been forcefully and persistently slipping. Pamela is in a nursing home, in her ‘own little world’, with an advanced form of dementia. Stephen is still playing the part of the caring husband to Pamela, yet has astonishingly and brazenly ‘taken up’ with a thirty-four year old interior designer, Heather. Heather is twenty-nine years younger than Stephen, and looks “like a New York fashion editor”.
Tully is thirty-seven and ‘living the life’ by being securely, and perhaps even a tad smugly, married to Sonny, a criminal barrister, who lives with Tully and their two young boys, Locky and Miles, in a particularly up-market suburb in Melbourne, in another mansion. “Tully hadn’t worked a day since Locky was born, if you didn’t count charity dinners”.
Tully, however, has been hiding a secret from everyone, even Sonny. She has been compulsively shop-lifting since she was eleven, and steals random and often mundane items on a whim (she hides the ‘proceeds of crime’ from Sonny).
Rachel, thirty-five years old, is engulfed in secrets of her own. She lives alone in a non-descript unit and has no family of her own. She mysteriously stopped dating when she was sixteen, and once a keen runner, she now ‘bake(s) and eats her feelings”. Rachel has quite a substantial obsession with food, which she uses to her advantage by running an exhuberantly successful baking business. This entails her making beautiful and opulent “cakes and pastries for weddings (and) other occasions”.
When Stephen triumphantly announces at a decadent lunch, for Tully and Rachel to meet Heather, that Heather and Stephen are engaged, Tully’s and Rachel’s emotions plummet into free-fall. Stephen is at this time still married to Pamela, although he plans to divorce Pamela, while still taking care of her.
Tully and Rachel are extremely wary of Heather and her motives for linking up with Stephen. Heather had met Stephen when she was commissioned to design the interior of Stephen and Pam’s house, and Tully believes that “Clearly Heather arrived at Mum and Dad’s very nice, very expensive house, took one look at Mum and saw an opening. Yes, Dad was old, but he was wealthy and a doctor”.
However, Heather has a deafeningly heart-breaking and significant backstory of her own. She has told Stephen, and now tells Tully and Rachel, that her parents have died in a car accident (or have they?), and we learn that Heather has grown up in an abusive and impoverished family where “Her father had taught her to expect nothing and accept less. And he’d taught her to believe that she was nothing”. Heather has carefully and purposefully ‘reinvented’ herself as an adult, so that she certainly doesn’t remotely resemble the working-class child she had once been. As Heather arrives with Stephen for a dinner-party with his ‘posh’ friends, she muses to herself that “this was the life she wanted – civilised dinners in beautiful homes, thoughtful conversation with intelligent people”. Additionally, we learn “Heather had spent her life working hard to look better than she was….No one wanted an ordinary person to fit out their home”.
Momentous fissures and cracks permeate each of the Astons’ and Heather’s lives. Despairingly, even Pamela has taken family secrets with her to the nursing home, which she comes to voice when least expected. Other family secrets are also ‘spilled’ in a profoundly devastating way, until true intentions and motives are displayed for us to witness in a revealing way.
“The Younger Wife” is in turns humorous, illuminating, heart-breaking and gut-wrenching, Sally Hepworth is a well-deserved ” ‘New York Times’ bestselling author”, and this sublimely written novel enraptured and broke my heart alternatively. I highly recommend “The Younger Wife” for fans of Liane Moriarty novels, or anyone wanting an intelligent, revealing novel of great insight, perspective and mystique.