THE WHISPERS, by Ashley Audrain
Over dinner recently, a friend told me that her debut thriller would be promoted as fancy women’s fiction. My heart sank. I know bookstores and sales teams rely on categories, but this one has always pissed me off. If women’s fiction is meant to illuminate the ways women exist in the world — shedding light on their triumphs, strengths, oppressions, and fears — shouldn’t the books in this category be essential for men, too?
That certainly applies to ‘The Whispers’, Ashley Audrain’s follow-up to her best-selling debut ‘The Push’. I want every man to read this book, despite promotional materials touting its appeal to women. The setup is familiar, straight out of “Little Fires Everywhere” or “Big Little Lies” – a luxurious enclave where semigracious living masks a web of extramarital affairs and buried secrets. One afternoon at a birthday party, guests hear Whitney, a woman with perfect taste and manners to match, yell at her 10-year-old Xavier. When the boy falls through his bedroom window a few months later and falls into a coma, the accident reveals not only the darkness beneath his mother’s gloss, but also the resentment and festering hatred in gentrifying Harlow Street.
At the center of “The Whispers” is a question: Is there more than one way to be a mother? Does the experience require all-consuming self-sacrifice, what Whitney calls “voluntary death,” or can a mother put her own needs first? Is it possible for her to be a responsible parent while hate the job – or even the kid?
Whitney, for example, “has hated the plastic bins full of toys and hates sitting on the floor. She hates making the sound of a car and pretending to be a cougar. She hates the mundane. She hates sounding light and cheerful and surprised when she’s not. She hates feigning interest in things that aren’t real.”
Then there’s her best friend, Blair, who says she “never made a choice with only her needs in mind, just because she wanted to.” She is “lonely, desperate and painfully lonely, as a mother with a family should never be.”
Rebecca is a dedicated ER doctor who has no children. And Mara is an elderly neighbor who still mourns her mentally ill son, who passed away decades ago. These two add another nuance to Audrain’s considerations: must a woman be a mother to be complete? What kind of mother are you after your child is gone?
Anger unites these women – anger skillfully, subtly and forcefully portrayed by Audrain. They suffer quietly, wracked by an undercurrent of anger over subtle adjustments to husbands and children. Each in their own way has settled for what Blair brilliantly calls the “safety of life diminished.”
Audrain is unwilling to elicit sympathy from her readers, leaving her characters imperfect, vulnerable, furious, and unrepentant. She examines their anger and presents their unvarnished emotions without passing judgment or apologizing.
Sometimes “The Whispers” can burn a little slow. It switches between characters and time periods too often during the three days Whitney waits at her son’s bedside, with his fate acting as the engine that spins the book through the final scene. It’s a common means of delving into the past to explain the present, in this case the days leading up to Xavier’s accident and its aftermath, when the present usually suffices.
As a result, we often get ahead of the characters as they uncover secrets and truths they’ve been hiding from themselves. But there’s a voyeuristic pleasure in watching couples’ clashes as their infidelities come to light, as well as their nasty secrets and petty jealousies. Even if the story is at times fraught with detail and direction, somehow these distractions never cloud the simplicity and honesty of the characters’ anger. This is both refreshing and disturbing. And after Audrain has lulled you into a sense of resignation about the fate of her characters, she delivers a plodding ending that you have to read twice to believe.
Ivy Pochoda’s most recent novel is ‘These Women’.
THE WHISPER | By Ashley Audrain | 336 pp. | Pamela Dorman Books | $28