The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon
Author: Ariel Lawhon
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1920s / 1930s / Mystery / New York City / Marriage / Infidelity / Show Girls)
Publisher/Publication Date: Doubleday (1/14/2014)
Source: The publisher.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: Three women are bound together by their common connection to a famous judge when he disappears suddenly.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: I do -- I love the font and colors especially. So bold!
I'm reminded of...: Paula McLain, Erika Robuck
First line: We begin in a bar.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like seedy stories and strong heroines.
Why did I get this book?: Love anything set during the 1930s, and I adored the title.
Review: I'd been excited about this book for months and I'm happy to say I wasn't disappointed. I zipped through it in less than two days, unable to put it down.
Inspired by a real life case, Lawhon's novel imagines the circumstances, and the players, involved in Justice Joseph Crater's disappearance. An up-and-coming (corrupt) judge in 1920s New York City, Crater has a gorgeous trophy wife, Stella, a boxom Broadway star mistress, Ritzi, and a pretty, exotic maid, Maria. All three women have reason enough to hate the slimy Judge Crater, but when he disappears, all three scramble to save themselves as Crater's enemies, as well as the law, searches for him.
The novel alternates between 1969, when Stella performs her yearly ritual of toasting to her missing husband as she's joined by a retired detective who investigated the disappearance, and the years around Judge Crater's 1930 disappearance.
Lawhon's writing style is warm and while very easy, she punctuates each scene with lovely bits of evocative language that had me constantly reaching for my pen. For example, on describing Stella's first experience with the speakeasy, Lawhon writes: "Notes floated up and around and mingled, cohabitating in the air. She could practically taste each chord change, that little pause in the air before she inhaled and then the new swell of music," p110.
The three titular heroines are as different from each other as can be -- Stella poised, cool, aloof; Ritzi sweet, insecure, earthy; and Maria religious, devoted, and hard-working -- and yet, they all charmed me from the start. I was worried this would be a novel of women hating on women, but to my delight, Lawhon's women are appreciative of what other women experience, suffer, and go through, and it was a relief to see these characters helping each other in their own small ways.
There's a twist toward the end that surprised me, but I'll admit I'm not the kind of reader who likes to solve the mystery or guess what is going on. But the real heft of the story comes not from the mystery -- what happened to Judge Crater -- but from learning just how much these women know about themselves, each other, and their desire to get what they each want.
Those who like the explosive world of the 1920s and 1930s will want this book, especially for the seedy glamor of Ritzi's Broadway life. This isn't a particularly dark book despite the theme, so those who don't typically read 'crime'-ish books might still want to pick this one up. It had the feel of Erika Robuck and Paula McLain so fans of those authors should give this debut a try!