‘A Second-Hand Husband’ – Claire Calman
Natalie and Carl are newlyweds, but the honeymoon period is over already.
Carl has just announced he has bought their first home at auction without telling Natalie where it is, never mind showing her a picture of it.
Natalie is horrified to discover that the dream home is in Little Wyford, mere minutes away from Carl’s ex-wife Antonia. And to make matters worse, Antonia’s palatial country mansion has a fully-functioning roof (and a heated swimming pool!), unlike the ramshackle cottage Carl has bought for them…
Antonia is Little Wyford’s Queen Bee, mistress of the book club, organiser of the Christmas Fair and leader of the ladies-who-lunch. No matter how hard she tries, Natalie just doesn’t fit in, and when Antonia insists on referring to Carl as ‘Our Husband’, Natalie’s dreams of happily-ever-after take another nose dive.
Second-hand furniture has much to recommend it, especially when doing up a country cottage, second-hand clothes can be ever-so chic, but second-hand husbands are proving to be a very bad idea indeed… Can Natalie ever escape the label of Wife Number Two or is she destined to share her husband forever?
I think this is the first time I have read a book hoping that a meteor would strike down, killing off all the characters instantly. (Spoiler alert: this does not happen.) In fact, there’s no natural tragedy that would ensure the characters would be wiped off the face of the novel so that the story could restart.
As you may have guessed, I did not like the characters. They frustrated me and I felt aggressively angry towards Carl. He is a horrible man who bullies, patronises and belittles Natalie to the point that, if it was me, that man would not be able to stand upright! My skin would crawl as I read scenes where he puts Natalie down so much – a woman who’s self-esteem is next to nothing already. Carl was not a tragic hero whom you could sympathise with, even when the writer provides more background to Carl’s upbringing and family dynamics. No way could I feel sorry for him.
Natalie was achingly self-conscious and someone who desperately wants to fade in the background. I grew irritated with her desire to constantly please others around her – even if it was a contradiction to her own beliefs or behaviours. She allows Carl to walk all over her and justifies his behaviour throughout. In my opinion, this made a very toxic relationship and one that could easily be interpreted as rather sinister.
So, if I read the book hoping to see a slaughtering in a quaint Kent village, why did I carry on reading? Well, it was the village of Little Wyford that helped redeem the story. I loved the setting and did smile at the whole ‘Stepford Wives’ theme that Natalie notices of the women of the village. Although Carl’s ex-wife, Antonia, also belonged in the ‘character bin’, I thought Calman plays on the housewife stereotype really well. It demonstrated a stark contrast between Natalie’s independence versus a group of woman who appear spoiled, kept and selfish. It was this that I hoped would spark a change in Natalie’s accepting behaviour.
In addition, I was really interested to see Natalie’s renovations of the run-down cottage that she and Carl have bought. Natalie is making decisions independent of Carl and I loved reading the changes happening. Furthermore, the grounds it is in are described really vividly and I thought the duckpond-come-swimming pool was a great touch! I could really picture Natalie pottering around and creating a rather beautiful home for her and her horrid husband.
This helps provoke a change in Natalie as she evolves to become a stronger woman, mindful of her behaviour and determined to stick to her beliefs. I liked watching this change happen over the story and this was the other significant reason why I carried on reading. Whilst I did not get the ending I was hoping for, it was satisfying to see Natalie more of a dominant character and comfortable with her identity. So, I guess a happy ending… ish.
Overall, I was not very impressed with this story. It’s a shame I grew to dislike the characters so much because this naturally lessened my enjoyment of the novel. Throughout, I wanted Natalie to grow a backbone, get a grip and see the reality of being married to Carl. And, whilst no meteors fell from the sky, it was quite nice to see a book with such a lovely setting.
Claire Calman is a writer and broadcaster known for her novels that combine wit and pathos, including the bestseller Love is a Four-Letter Word. She has appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour and Loose Ends. Her first book for Boldwood was published in June 2020.
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With thanks to Boldwood books, NetGalley and Rachel’s Random Resources for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.