by Chandler Baker
Nora Spangler has dried up. She is the mother of a young child, on the way, and is the plaintiff’s attorney for a firm. Her husband, Hayden, is incapable of complex parenting tasks, such as convincing the couple’s young daughter to use the bathroom. Gary, Nora’s boss, calls her on Sunday because he doesn’t know how to turn off caps lock. (“Is the light on the left side of your keyboard green?” she asks.)
“The Whisper Network,” Chandler Baker’s debut novel for adults, focuses on the failures of a sexist, unjust office in the wake of a sexual assault trial. “Husbands” also hint at the workplace, but turn most of their attention to the inadequacies of the nuclear family, where women are expected to not only have it all, but to do it all. The book reads like a direct descendant of Ira Levine’s 1972 feminist classic, “The Stepford Wives,” but Levine teases the housewife archetype as a machine in the service of a man, with Baker depicting the contemporary, leaning working mother as one who needs to placate her husband in order to get to the end of the day. His criticism of the heterosexual American family and the malicious ways men perpetuate sexist power structures is straightforward and unmistakable. Baker insists that, while a sexist society may be to blame for the distress of mothers, it is us Makes everyone a villain.
Throughout the novel, Nora dwells on two concerns that she repeats to herself like mantras: that Hayden is a good husband, and that he doesn’t help nearly enough. His movement with Hayden’s good-husband, bad-husband act is the primary source of the book’s suspense, though a tangle of secrets provides superficial tension.
As her pregnancy progresses, Nora decides that her two-story Austin home is too limited for her growing family. She becomes enamored with a house at Dynasty Ranch, a picture-perfect development where lawns are wide and neatly trimmed, ranch houses are sprawling and the wives — every designated couple at Dynasty Ranch are straight — of their farms. At the top are psychiatry, neuroscience and real estate. The husbands have access to a gorgeous golf course, but they’re so focused on Konmari on their pantry and sandwich-making, they rarely enjoy it. A lonely Nora bumps into the women of Dynasty Ranch, who persuade her to represent the local resident in a wrongful death trial. Penny March’s home with her husband Richard burned inside.
Fire is the central mystery of the book, but not at its most compelling. Nor is it a question of what the wives of Dynasty Ranch are doing to their husbands in an effort to get what they want from their partners to achieve career success. Rather, it is how Nora may respond to her growing panic at the mess of her own life, her feelings of powerlessness, the fear that exhaustion and distraction will harm her children.
There are no surprising twists in “The Husbands”; Anyone who has read (or watched the movie) “The Stepford Wives” will know how it ends. Still, I found myself holding my breath, both hoping and not expecting that Nora would choose differently. It’s a testament to Baker’s talent as a writer that the final scenes of this familiar story are nonetheless a punch. He has a gift for portraying flawed, desperate characters who make decisions that are as sympathetic as they are hateful and selfish.
However, there is one flaw that I apologize for not mentioning. Baker portrays the despair of overwhelmed women like Nora, yet barely acknowledges the plight of other mothers who work Nora can’t handle herself – women who get no help of their own. The book rarely recognizes the labors that make the Spanglers’ lives easier, and yet, it is portrayed as a burden: “This is how the Spangler family will be torn apart, a $3.99 delivery fee at a time.” And a $5 driver tip.”
But what Baker makes clear is that even the height of upper-middle-class white privilege cannot protect women from falling prey to their selfish, bumbling husbands and domineering bosses. The question is how much do you blame them when they snap.