Recipe for a Perfect Wife

Written by Karma Brown
Review by Elisabeth Lenckos

After a disaster at work, publicist Alice Hale leaves Manhattan to start over as a writer in the New York suburbs. But while her husband, Nate, is enthusiastic about the change in their lifestyle, Alice feels at a loss in their vintage home, which she senses is haunted by a hostile presence. Worse, the inspiration she hopes to draw for her art is not forthcoming, and she longs for the city and ways to occupy her time. However, salvation presents itself in the guise of an old cookbook whose pages its previous owner, Nellie Murdoch, has laced with recipes and hints about what it meant to be a housewife in the 1950s. When Alice unearths a cache of letters Nellie wrote but never sent to her mother, she decodes the terrible secret her predecessor has kept buried for many years. Alice’s discovery leads her to question her own marriage, and she finally decides to take charge of her life.

Alternating between Nellie’s and Alice’s story, Brown’s novel intersperses the narrative with excerpts from 1950s etiquette manuals, such as Don’ts for Wives and How to Help Your Husband Get Ahead in His Social and Business Life. Their advice turns out to be particularly poignant, reminding readers to what devastating effect women have been asked to deny themselves for the sake of their spouses. As the book charts the course of Nellie’s suffering, it dawns on Alice that despite her modernity, she has internalized the notion that women should defer to men. As she fights her instinct to submit, she understands that ‘the perfect wife’ must strike out on her own in order to succeed in her endeavors. A feminist novel that manages to enlighten and entertain.