by Rebekah Benoit
How well do you really know your spouse? It’s the premise of many a novel, and on the surface, Hidden isn’t any different than so many other novels written about a cheating husband, a shocked and angry wife, and the other woman caught in the middle. And yet, this book manages to reel you in anyway. Improbably, as Catherine McKenzie tells the story of an unfaithful marriage from three different perspectives, you find yourself siding with all three of them, knowing the conclusion can’t be anything but sad and yet hoping for a happy ending anyway.
When Jeff Manning, a mid-level manager at a nondescript company, is suddenly and tragically killed in a car accident, he leaves the typical grieving family. His wife Claire is blindsided by sadness, unsure how to respond to the tidal wave of support she receives from family and friends, and at the same time determined to help her 12-year old son Seth navigate the deep waters of grief.
Equally devastated, but unable to show it, is the other woman. Unbeknownst to Claire, Jeff has struck up a close friendship with a work colleague, a woman who works in the HR department for the same company but is based in a town 500 miles away. Over the past year, their friendship has blossomed into a romance.
Tish is shocked and adrift in the wake of the news that Jeff has died, but unlike Claire, she has no one to turn to for comfort. Instead, she has to paint a smile on her face and pretend that everything is fine for the sake of her doctor husband Brian and their eleven-year old daughter Zoey.
As Claire reels with the news of her husband’s death, she relives the years of their marriage, the mistakes that both have made and the damage wrought from those mistakes. A miscarriage, an illicit kiss, and years of distance and silence have made their marriage strained, but Claire is only beginning to discover just how bad things have gotten. When she finds some unexplainable texts on her husband’s cell phone, Claire is driven to find out everything she can about her husband’s hidden life in the days and months before his death.
As Claire’s suspicions mount, Tish is irresistibly drawn to the wreckage of Jeff’s life. She volunteers to attend his funeral, desperate for a few more moments with the man who had come to play such an enormous role in her life. Tish realizes she’s taking a huge risk – her emotions are barely under control, and her own husband is furious that she’s missing her daughter’s poetry competition to attend the funeral of a co-worker in a distant city – but she can’t seem to stop herself, or the steamroller of grief bearing down on her life.
Interspersed with Claire and Tish’s stories is that of Jeff, who tells the tale of a husband who loves his wife, but whose marriage has grown distant and cold. Unsure of what to do and still smarting from a relatively recent incident between Claire and his own brother, Jeff finds himself inexorably drawn to Tish, battling feelings of guilt and shame with the excitement of forbidden love with someone new and vibrant.
While there’s nothing really new or earth-shaking in this novel – it’s a story that’s been told many times – McKenzie does a good job of portraying the complexity of the modern marriage. She doesn’t succumb to the easy temptation to villianize the other woman – rather, McKenzie’s characters are complex and nuanced, making it difficult to point the finger of blame at any one of them. McKenzie’s storytelling is well-timed, her language lyrical and vivid while at the same time approachable and genuine.
I found this novel eminently readable. While McKenzie doesn’t forge any new trails in the age-old theme of betrayal and forgiveness, she still manages to make the story interesting and keep it readable.