Often when I read a book, I want not only to experience the slings and arrows of the story, but to lose myself in a world as vividly drawn as my own. A place I step in to and do not want to leave. And so it was with The Housekeeper by Suellen Dainty.
In The Housekeeper we meet Anne, a woman broken by a relationship, who has in its destruction lost not only the man, but her career as a sous chef in his award-winning restaurant. All of a dither she takes a post as a Housekeeper to a successful blogger and businesswoman. Described as England’s answer to Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey, Emma is given to pithy advice and rather lovely quotes, but while her work might invite Anne’s curiosity, it is the dynamics of Emma’s family that she is most drawn to, yearning as she is for her own. For the carefree children and the underlying sexual tension between Emma and her attractive husband.
While The Housekeeper has been described as a psychological thriller, it really isn’t, at least not in The Girl On A Train sense of such a description, instead what we get is an impeccably drawn character study of Anne and a portrait of a marriage lived under the glare of social media today, and to me at least, it was utterly fascinating. An amble through the dusty bohemia of a life created but not actually lived. A behind the scenes look at so much of the Instagram worthy perfection shoved down our throats today. And a study of both envy, greed and disappointment played out by all the main characters.
Anne is both relatable and quietly menacing. Emma selling her soul for the rich rewards creating a facade can pay. While their own relationship is at once intimate, claustrophobic and distant in the extreme (as I can only imagine the relationship between Mistress of the House and the hired help can be), it is Anne’s hushed observations of life in the shambles of a house and family that prove most fascinating and ultimately most destructive. It is her own story that proves to be all their undoings and it is ultimately the meshing of all their lives that provides the atmosphere for the entire book.
And oh what atmosphere! While we are at once soothed by Anne’s interest in the advice Emma issues to her readers, and the cosy suppers she cooks and serves around the dimly lit kitchen table, we are also treated to vivid description of a life and home in disarray that Anne sets about bring order to. Taking quiet possession of all that she touches and more – all the secrets she reveals in the process.
There are arty parties and drunken evenings around the dinner table. Pretentious conversation and children silently disintegrating before their blinkered eyes. A secret at the heart of a marriage endured for the glory it brings and a motive for intimacy the couple encourage with Anne.
I couldn’t put it down.
Perhaps because Emma’s online world is so like my own. Perhaps because though my world is orderly and contained, underneath it all I know that letting go, could so easily mean a life as dusty and chaotic as hers, or perhaps because these days we are all drawn in to the complex webs we weave in order not to deceive, but to thrive in a world where brand, and nothing but brand really matters.