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'The First Wife' is a contemporary fiction novel by Emily Barr. I'd never heard of this author until I came across some reviews of this particular book a few months ago. Since it sounded like a fairly interesting story I decided to put this book on my 'to-read' list, and a week ago I rented a copy from the library. Don't be fooled by the lighthearted looking book cover above though- this is far from a lighthearted summer read!
Upon the death of the grandparents who raised her, the sheltered, naive Lily Button must find her own way alone in a modern world she isn't accustomed to. With some help she manages to get a cleaning job in the house of the affluent Summers couple. She soon befriends the handsome actor-turned-solicitor Harry and is envious of his wife Sarah with their seemingly perfect lifestyle. So it is all the more baffling when Sarah takes her own life one Christmas during the couple's trip to Barcelona.
Lily soon becomes drawn to a grieving Harry and the pair soon fall into a whirlwind romance and eventually engagement. However, as their marriage looms around the corner, Lily soon becomes uncertain about the circumstances behind Sarah's death. How did Sarah die, if she did at all- and is Harry all that he seems?
'The First Wife' was surprisingly better than expected, even with the positive reviews I read before deciding to read it.
It does have a bit of a slow start, as what the blurb won't mention is that quite a few chapters are spent on Lily adjusting to a "normal" life. They were interesting in that they developed Lily's character a lot, just it didn't really progress the story that much. However, when she finally meets Harry the story definitely picks up as we follow their romance and, underlying that, the secret behind Sarah's death. The book certainly has some suspenseful moments where I wanted to keep reading and get to the secret of the Summers' "perfect" life for Lily's sake, not to mention a few plot twists that kept me on the edge as well. Whilst a couple concerning the main characters are perhaps predictable judging from the synopsis, some details did catch me by surprise!
Emily Barr's narrative is very realistic, especially when she writes as Lily in the first person. Lily is a very sympathetic and relatable character; having been raised from her grandparents after her real parents dumped her rather selfishly, she is very unfamiliar with modern pop culture and technology, hence why their deaths leave her very isolated and unable to cope. Despite this, I didn't find her a frustrating or even that naive because her backstory makes these traits understandable. Besides, she does develop to become familiar with these things and becomes stronger mentally as well, mostly through her relationship with Harry. Their romance is very sweet and I felt happy for Lily despite the disapproval of people who knew Sarah Summers, and you do soon see why.
Interestingly, the other main character in the book is Jack, a guy from New Zealand who comes to Barcelona to teach English- something he has always wanted to do since adolescence but has been frustrated since he married young. His chapters (written in third-person) come interspersed among Lily's and at first I wondered how Jack's story relates to Lily's in any way as the story progresses. Jack is very likeable because of how down-to-earth he is and I found him a great supporting character to the main story despite how random his introduction seems to be at the start of the book- once the characters become connected you do understand why Emily Barr writes Jack in the way she does!
'The First Wife' was definitely an enjoyable read. If you want a contemporary summer read that's more substantial than your typical chick-lit then you will definitely enjoy this. I liked this book a lot and I will certainly look twice the next time I come across an Emily Barr novel!
(Review also on ciao under the username Anti_W, and my book blog 'Tales of Antonia'.)
I am a huge fan of the writer Emily Barr and have pretty much read all of her books. Her latest book, 'The First Wife', is another great read, with lots of intrigue and mystery. However, some of her earlier books such as 'The Sisterhood' and 'Out of My Depth' are brilliant and take a lot of living up to! I don't think that 'The First Wife' ranks as highly as these but it is another top book all the same.
'The First Wife' is about a young woman called Lily who has not had the easiest of starts in life. Abandoned by her selfish parents as a child, she spent her teenage years looking after her ailing grandparents who die within a few months of each other when she is eighteen. Unfortunately, she is left with very little and having had a sheltered upbringing struggles to deal with life on her own in the big wide world. She takes on a few cleaning jobs and is soon befriended by Harry and Sarah Summers, a couple for whom she cleans. Suddenly and shockingly though, on a Christmas holiday in Barcelona, Sarah takes her own life and on his return Harry turns more and more to Lily for support and solace. Before long, they are a couple and engaged, but heading towards the wedding, Lily becomes concerned that things, particularly surrounding Sarah's death, are not what they seem. As her doubts increase, she starts wondering whether she really knows Harry and whether she really likes the things that she does know.
What starts of as a reasonably easy read becomes increasingly tense and suspenseful as Lily' investigations take her to Barcelona, the place of Sarah's death. What she discovers is surprising and alarming and I was gripped needing to know what would happen next. The pace increases after a relatively slow start and this kept me wanting to read on.
Another story is also going on across the other side of the world in New Zealand. Jack is restless and although he loves his three children, finds life increasingly difficult with his wife. When he discovers that she has been cheating on him with most of his mates, it is his opportunity to leave and to travel. As I was reading I could not quite work out how these two story lines would converge but of course they eventually do in a quite surprising way.
Although I felt that 'The First Wife' started a bit slowly, it did really hook me in and I enjoyed reading it. I thought that the character of Lily was intriguing and it was easy to feel for her when she started having suspicions about Harry. Emily Barr only reveals what she wants her reader to know when she wants them to know and that makes it a clever plot that is likely to keep one guessing until the very last pages.
Although I don't think that 'The First Wife' is necessarily Emily Barr's best book I would definitely recommend it, but I would recommend books like 'Plan B' and 'Out of My Depth' more.
The First Wife is currently available on amazon for £4.55 for the paperback (December 2011).
This review has previously appeared on www.curiousbookfans.co.uk and I am grateful to the publishers for sending me a copy.
Lilybella Tatiana Blossom Button (who thankfully - for our sake as well as hers - goes by a simple Lily) has had an upbringing almost as unconventional as her name. Raised by her grandparents, we join her following their recent deaths and soon discover she is quite unlike most other 20 year olds. It's going to be a brisk transition from a sheltered life in a small cottage, nursing elderly relatives to the Real World but with no money to speak off, she'll have to pull herself together, and quickly. Her background is an important part of Lily and contributes enormously to her trusting and a little immature personality that will later be her downfall. A few weeks later, though, and things are looking up. She has taken a room in a house where she is much more one of the family than just a lodger. She's found some cleaning work and, even more exciting, one of her agency clients is a rather dashing ex-celeb and his beautiful, elegant wife. Yes, Lily's star is definitely on the rise.
At Christmas, everything changes. The beautiful and elegant wife dies in tragic circumstances. The dashing ex-celeb is devastated until the unexpected happens and, after a reasonable period of mourning (this is, despite its storyline, a wonderfully realistic book for the most part, from a writer who always produces such) he begins to put his life back together. Lily plays a key role in his recovery and soon there is, as the title suggests, talk of her becoming a wife - a ''second'' wife, stepping into the shoes of the first. It may seem quick, but due to his fame and charisma, she is not being discouraged by her adoptive family, the people who, I thought, should have known better.
In some ways the story is very reminiscent of Barr's release before this, The Perfect Lie, in part because of the relationships between the characters (young naive girls, controlling older men). But though the characters may be naive and uneducated and distinctly unworldly, they are still smart enough to sense when something is not quite right. Plus, their striving for a better life is clear, as is their idea of what that entails: I love how one of the first things Lily does is apply for a passport. With no actual plans for the future, she still knows that at some point she'll not only want to leave Cornwall, but leave the whole country too.
Jack is an interesting character. He's clearly needed as a conduit towards the end of the story, but rather than have just anyone, a rather tenuous link he might have to Lily's past is hinted at. Maybe it's a bit over the top, or rather unlikely, but because by the time it emerges we've already got to know him - a man who, for all their differences, is in some ways just as much a scared country mouse as Lily is - it's not that important. As an EFL teacher I found it hard to believe he would get illegal work in Spain and clock in 42 contact hours a week (my full time in Colombia was 16 hours) but this is mentioned only once and the irritation quickly fades.
Emily Barr's 'thing' is superb, detailed mysteries that need to be unwound carefully with the knots picked out, invariably with a dark twist. Either I'm becoming cleverer in my advancing age, or the clues are a smidge less subtle because there were a few things I pounced on. I had a good clue about what had happened to Lily's parents, and I knew what had really happened to Sarah before we all found out the how and why. At the same time it in no way affected the likeability of the story. One thing I admire about Barr's writing is the way you can fall into it from the very first page. The build up is an interesting and engaging as the climax and they're definitely not the type of books you need a while to get into.
I thought as I read it that it was a little rushed towards the end, and too skewed towards time in the UK, but I think I was just excitedly reading faster as I neared the final pages, because looking back a good quarter of the pages take place in Barcelona after all. Needless to say, I flew through this book. Despite the heroine comparisons to the earlier work, it was still a fresh, new story where the fine details weren't immediately obvious, even if the wonderfully dark undertones were showing from early on. The story doesn't so much flow as gush through the pages, with the reader caught up in the current, and my main disappointment at the end was that, with the usual annual release, I have another year to wait until I can see what Barr comes up with next. As I read I don't nitpick as I might have done here. I don't think about it as a tale that has been written and could be mildly improved. As I flick through the pages I'm absorbed in a story that has, for my intents and purposes, actually happened, and is being retold for my benefit, and to do so is thoroughly enjoyable.
The First Wife is now out in paperback, or you can get it on Kindle.
This review first appeared on www.thebookbag.co.uk