There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Thrillers with a big twist near the end make for good reading, and that’s what Liv Constantine’s recently published The Wife Stalker provides. It saves lots of its ammunition for the denouement, making it a page-turner—not surprising considering its authors, the sister duo Lynne and Valerie Constantine as Liv Constantine, have written nothing but best-sellers.
The Wife Stalker presents two women, Piper and Joanna, in a struggle over a man, Leo. The book alternates between chapters told from Piper’s and Joanna’s perspectives, which are as different as possible: Piper is organized, goal-oriented, and successful, though haunted by a questionable past; Joanna is frazzled, emotional, disorganized, and, in many ways, the very definition of a loser. How she got this way is revealed by the unsparing portrait of her mother, a complaining, nagging, self-pitying hypochondriac Joanna must care for. “Men always get what they want,” Joanna’s mother says, “and we’re left with nothing.”
Piper’s parents are a different disaster. “Her parents were good on paper: accomplished and hardworking. Her father, a mechanical engineer, taught at the Naval Academy, and her microbiologist mother worked in a private research lab. As the only child, she’d felt the full force of the high standards they set for her … she realized what a cold and barren upbringing she’d had. It was probably part of the reason she’d never really wanted children of her own.” When Piper’s father dies, her mother waits a week to notify her, denying her the chance to attend his funeral.
Both narrators are scarred. Neither is particularly sympathetic, but they keep the reader riveted with their machinations in their fight over Leo. He is not developed much; he’s simply presented as an all-purpose, desirable male over whom the two women battle, nearly destroying each other. Particularly interesting are Joanna’s sessions with her therapist Celeste, who tries and fails to shatter her patient’s fixations. Though a minor character, Celeste is revealed as pivotal in the end. The reader can’t help rooting for her. Her professional distance and care for her patients are well-presented. She could support another novel herself.
This is a story about a psychopath. It holds the reader in suspense for a while as to who is the psychopath, but once it becomes clear, the stage is set for even more bombshell revelations. Keeping the reader unsure of who the real menace is makes this novel a successful thriller.
The idea that these women will claw each other to death for a man is never questioned. Indeed, in some places, the idea of feminist solidarity was never born, and a thriller in the mold of the movie Fatal Attraction is one of them. This genre does not pretend to be something it’s not. In it, women are out for themselves, which means one thing: snagging the man they’re after. At one point in this book, one character reads Jane Eyre. This sly reference is apt. In The Wife Stalker, there is an unwell woman, though not in the attic like in Jane Eyre, but out and about, making trouble.
“She was elected home-coming queen,” Piper’s mother says of her, “of all the anti-feminist, frivolous things.” It’s a little dispiriting to read an endorsement of feminism in the mouth of such a monstrous character. But fortunately, Constantine does not belabor the point. In this novel’s world, feminism is a sick joke. You can’t fault this thriller for reflecting the values of the culture at large, especially when it does such a good job of delineating them to their fatal, frightening conclusion.