Review: The First Wife — Emily Barr

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To Go: 76

Book List:
21. Why Men Lie — Linden MacIntyre
22. My Dear I Wanted to Tell You — Louisa Young
23. Phaedrus — Plato
24. The First Wife — Emily Barr

After the death of her grandparents, Lily Button is left without a home or family in the quiet corner of Cornwall where she grew up. When she’s offered some cleaning work for local celebrity couple the Summers she is thrilled when the glamorous pair take her under their wing.

With her stunning house and dazzling husband Harry, Sarah Summers appears to have the perfect life. So why, on holiday in Barcelona, does she slip away from her sleeping husband and throw herself in the sea?

After Sarah’s death, Lily finds herself inextricably drawn to the grieving Harry. But as she falls deeper under his spell, she realizes that nothing is really as it seems…

Well. I will be straightforward: I was extremely displeased with this book. However, I did learn a valuable lesson from this incident: DO NOT IMPULSE-BUY BOOKS AT THE GROCERY STORE. If they’re for sale in a grocery store, there’s a reason. 

Take note, all.

Anyway, because I enjoy ranting and I haven’t done nearly enough of it this year (I’ve just been reading too many fabulous books), I will explain in great detail why this book was not good.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with the idea of “suspending your disbelief” while reading (I, personally, like to picture a little cynical me, the physical manifestation of my “disbelief,” strung up above my head while I read…I don’t know why). For those of you who aren’t, the idea is that while you’re reading, anything in the book’s universe is possible and you momentarily forget that the laws of the real world exist. But if the book goes too far, your disbelief won’t be “suspended;” for most people, that usually results in questioning and critiquing while you read.

Even from the first page, I was questioning and critiquing. The main character, Lilybella Tatiana Blossom Button (I’m, tragically, not kidding about that being her full name…it’s like she was named by a three-year-old girl) was at once too much and not enough. That sounds confusing; I’ll explain.

Lily Button is the classic “Mary Sue” character. She has zero recognizable character traits, and absolutely no flaws whatsoever. She is the most beautiful girl in the room. She is not even slightly realistic, and the reader (in this case, me) will never relate to her because she’s too perfect. Everyone in the book wants to be friends with her, which is completely unjustifiable because there’s nothing for them to latch onto since she has no personality. She’s praised throughout the book for her sweetness and kindness, and people seem to like her immediately upon meeting her (Harry Summer’s mother, for one, who sees her and, before Lily says anything at all, is already fawning over her), but from what the reader sees there’s no evidence to support these claims. She doesn’t have enough personality or flaws to be a character.

At the same time, she’s entirely too much to handle. The backstory that we’re supposed to believe was that she was raised by her bizarre grandparents who walked around nude, recited Shakespearean sonnets before dinner instead of saying grace, and had a whole host of other weird habits. She cared for both of her grandparents until they died, and then she was left alone and socially awkward because her grandma and pop-pop were her only friends and they were really unusual.

But here’s a flaw in that logic that no one seemed to consider: school. Lily mentions several times that she went to school and did quite well. And school is one of the first places where children become socialized, and learn how to relate to other people. Yet, at the age of 20, Lily claims to be entirely socially awkward (she doesn’t even know, apparently, how to respond when someone says a friendly “hi” on the street). I’m sorry, but I just can’t believe that. Nor can I believe every other instance of social awkwardness that Lily has. She went through years of schooling; she knows how to socialize by now. And if she was truly as tragic as she claimed, she wouldn’t acquire her friends nearly as quickly (or at all).

There was a second plot-line in the book, following a New Zealander named Jack, and though it was written marginally better, it was also totally unbelievable. (And a quick side-note: though Lily and Jack became the two main characters of the book, Lily was written in first person and Jack in third, which seemed a weird discrepancy to me.) Jack, full of wanderlust, comes home one day to find his wife in bed with not one, but two guys. She then reveals she’s been sleeping with most of the town.

Okay.

I can’t claim to be experienced in the fine art of adultery, but you would think that if you’re messing around on your husband, you’d want to be sort of stealthy. Funny enough, sleeping with 20 different guys (most of whom are your husband’s friends) doesn’t seem to be very subtle.

That scene gets even weirder and less plausible when, instead of reacting like most people (heartbreak, anger), Jack…hugs his wife and they start crying tears of joy because they’re finally free from their marriage! I get that the marriage was obviously not going well, but wouldn’t Jack be a little damaged by the betrayal, or sad for what he lost? Nope. Jack’s a robot. He, completely unrealistically, bounces back from that revelation in about five seconds flat.

So, lessons learned: characterization is important. And don’t buy books from the grocery store.

Next book: I think it’s going to be Things I Want My Daughters To Know by Elizabeth Noble

– Kelsey

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