Spoilers abound. This article is a would-be writer’s look at a popular thriller novel.
Adding a single ingredient, like mental illness or drug abuse, can transform a run-of-the-mill mystery into a psychological thriller.
For instance, Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train uses an unreliable alcoholic protagonist to narrate a basic mystery novel. Likewise, A. J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window uses agoraphobia, only to a far lesser effect. Neither the alcoholism nor the agoraphobia is strictly necessary for the novels’ plots. In the case of The Girl on the Train, the protagonist’s drinking problem causes blackouts in her memory, thus delaying the unraveling of the mystery. Agoraphobia in The Woman in the Window serves primarily to create a debilitated/ reluctant hero. Again, the device is used to delay the novel’s progression.
And then there are thrillers that don’t use such gimmicks at all. They simply play with and undermine tropes. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and du Maurier’s Rebecca come to mind as examples.
Tarryn Fisher in The Wives, however, goes the first route; only she uses paranoid disorder as a twist. Whereas alcoholism and agoraphobia are part of the status quo of Hawkins’ and Finns’ novels, respectively, Fisher only introduces mental illness in the second half of her novel. Ultimately, delusion serves not to delay the plot but to explore the breakdown of a marriage.
The chief issue is whether using delusion as a narrative device is compatible with the thriller as a genre.
To answer that, let’s look at the book more closely.
Suspicion is the novel’s starting point
The Wives is a psychological thriller that reads like an old-fashioned domestic noir novel. Indeed, if it weren’t for the ubiquitous presence of cell phones, you could easily imagine the story taking place mid-last-century, especially with the regressive notions about marriage and wifedom.
(I know all that stuff is still alive and kicking.)
The novel is about a polygamous marriage. A woman named Thursday shares her husband, Seth, with two other women. As a joke between them, they nickname the two other wives, Monday and Tuesday. The purpose of this polygamy is both cultural and practical. Seth comes from a polygamist family settled in Utah, where such arrangements aren’t unheard of. The second reason is that Seth wants children, while his career-oriented first wife, Tuesday, doesn’t. As a compromise, Tuesday and Seth agree he will divorce Tuesday and marry Thursday, but he will also continue his relationship with his first wife, whom he still loves. As part of the agreement, neither wife will meet the other; their sole connection will be through Seth. It’s all very mature and adult.
The new, shiny, youthful third wife, Monday, comes into the picture when Thursday suffers a traumatizing miscarriage that requires a hysterectomy. Monday will now be the uterus in this polygamist affair. At the start of the novel, we learn Monday is already pregnant.
That’s the basic setup to the story: three women married to one man. Thursday, the novel’s protagonist and now the middle wife, feels that her place in Seth’s life is precarious. She doesn’t have the allure of the first wife, who has the longest history with Seth, is youthful, despite her age, and a bit glamorous. Nor is Thursday actually young like the second wife.
The novel’s inciting incident occurs when Thursday discovers Monday’s identity from a hospital bill she finds in Seth’s pocket. Monday’s actual name is Hannah, and she lives two hours away in Portland, Oregon. After a little internet stalking, Thursday comes across her picture. Hannah isn’t the blonde surfer girl she imagined, but has Nordic supermodel beauty. This inflames Thursday’s growing insecurity: she grows jealous and a little obsessed. Thursday tracks Monday/ Hannah to a beautiful, well-kept house that suggests a Norman Rockwell happy union, which is yet another stab to Thursday’s ego. But Thursday also sees cracks and fault lines. There are no pictures of Seth and Hannah in the house, and tiny bruises cover Monday’s arms. Thursday’s mind jumps to the conclusion that Seth is abusing Monday. In a sick way, this scant evidence of unhappiness gives her hope that she can gain a firmer/ more dominant foothold in the wife hierarchy. Soon after, Thursday’s growing obsession extends to the first wife, a successful lawyer named Regina. Because Regina has an online dating profile, Thursday catfishes her to get evidence that she’s cheating on Seth.
The novel’s second half gives way to paranoia
About halfway through The Wives, a major narrative twist occurs. Thursday finds herself locked away in a mental institution after she confronts Seth with her suspicions of spousal abuse. During her stay in the asylum, the doctor suggests that Thursday has been hospitalized in the psych ward before, which comes as news to both us, the reader, and the character. Why doesn’t she remember this? There are two possibilities: either the doctor and Seth are gaslighting Thursday or she is delusional. I immediately started thinking of novels like The Woman in White, in which the asylum plays a huge part of patriarchal control. As Fisher is more interested in creating a character study, she goes down the second route. The second half of the novel is in some sense pure fantasy: a paranoid delusion that illuminates Thursday’s psychology.
Drawbacks to writing a thriller around a delusional character
One aspect of the thriller genre is that they are semi-mysteries, but unlike regular mysteries, thriller novels progress through action packed scenes or, in the case of psychological thrillers like The Wives, through twists and turns in the narrative. Fisher carries on with the thriller elements well into the third act of the novel. After Thursday is released from the psych ward, she concocts a theory that her husband is a sick individual who gets off on impregnating his wives and then slipping them an abortifacient that causes the women to miscarry. This is based on the memory of Seth giving her an herbal tea just before her miscarriage. We later learn that Regina also suffered a miscarriage and that Seth had given her the same tea.
In the fourth act, during a confrontation between Seth and his three wives, is when Thursday suddenly remembers reality: (1) that she is not married to Seth, but is actually his mistress, (2) that she owns the house Monday lives in, and (3) that she was picked up at the hospital, not by her husband, but by her father.
This is the point when many readers will throw up their hands in frustration. As I mentioned above, thrillers are a little like mystery novels and therefore rely on facts; thus, using a delusional character undermines the genre. We don’t know what we can and cannot believe. In fact, Thursday could be sitting in a psych ward just imaging everything. Delusion robs fiction of reality and therefore impact. We tend not to care about things that aren’t real.
What’s more is that delusions feel like a cheat ending in thrillers: a sign of a novelist who can’t come up with a proper ending.
The Final Twist
Delusions, however, can serve as an excellent means to study a character’s imagination. And this is why The Wives is brilliant.
The final twist of The Wives is that it’s not a thriller at all, but a character study of a woman who was dumped by her husband after she lost her child. After the final confrontation scene between the husbands and wives- during which Thursday cripples Seth by shooting him in the spine, Thursday returns to the psych ward for further treatment. Thursday doesn’t get criminally charged because her lawyer makes the case that (1) Thursday is crazy and (2) Regina, the first wife, tricked Thursday into believing Seth slipped both Regina and Thursday an abortifacient.
In the last pages, Regina visits Thursday in the asylum. Thursday says, “I’m glad we both got away from him,” to which Regina replies, “This isn’t a little club. I’m not like you. You’re crazy.”
After that, Thursday goes off the rails and attacks Regina, smashing her forehead into Regina’s nose. “Help,” someone screams. “She’s going to kill her!”
Thursday thinks: “I am helping. I’m helping myself.”
And that may be the final twist of the novel. Regina and Thursday are the same person- the first wife who becomes the mistress, and that by destroying Regina, Thursday is freeing herself of Seth.
The story isn’t about paranoid delusion at all, but about a split personality.
Note: (Parallels to du Maurier’s Rebecca) In terms of both subject and theme, the book mirrors Daphne du Maurier’s classic gothic novel, Rebecca, which is also a book about a second wife and feelings of jealousy. The thematic similarity was so great that I actually guessed the ending to The Wives. I knew some calamity would befall Seth, and since there was no Manderley to burn down, I guessed he would end up crippled, a la Mr. Rochester. I even guessed Seth would end up wheelchair-bound.