Sunday, May 9, 2010

Review: The Wives of Henry Oades

The Wives of Henry Oades: A Novel (Random House Reader's Circle)From the Back Cover:

When Henry Oades accepts an accountancy post in New Zealand, his wife, Margaret, and their children follow him to exotic Wellington. But while Henry is an adventurer, Margaret is not. Their new home is rougher and more rustic than they expected - and a single night of tragedy shatters the family when the native Maori stage an uprising, kidnapping Margaret and her children.

(I'm paraphrasing here because I think the back cover gives too much of the story away, but basically the family is presumed dead and a grief-stricken Henry eventually moves away and starts a new life. But his family has actually been enslaved these past years and have escaped and track him down to find he has moved on with a woman named Nancy.)

Narrated primarily by the two wives, and inspired by a widely publicized newspaper account, The Wives of Henry Oades is the riveting story of what happens when Henry, Margaret and Nancy face prosecution for bigamy. Exploring the intricacies of marriage, the construction of family, the changing world of the late 1800s, and the strength of two remarkable women, Johanna Moran turns this unusual family's story into an unforgettable page-turning drama.

This is one of those books that really pisses me off.

The first half of the book is really, really good. 200 pages fly by as we witness Margaret's and Henry's love for each other and their children, her harrowing abduction, her devotion to him keeping her going through captivity and enslavement, and his grief for her and his children hanging over him as he lives seven years without them. Then he meets Nancy under circumstances similar to his own, empathizes with her and marries her to help her out. A couple of months later, Margaret and his children return, wanting only to be a family again. But surprise, Dad's got a new family.

At this point, I was expecting a grand love triangle. A man torn between the love of his life whom he thought was dead and the new life he's created with his new wife. I expected joy and regret, angst, torment, emotional and physical entanglement and betrayal.

Nope. None of that.

And what a disappointment. All of a sudden, Henry, whom I really liked, is a different man. He's so devoted and in love with his new young wife Nancy that he can't even muster up a hug for Margaret. Hello, you're alive, I'm glad, but I thought you were dead and I've moved on and have no desire to look back. Not even a Thanks for keeping my kids alive. A complete 180 on his part with no lead-up explanation, no insight as to how he acquires these feelings for Nancy. And Nancy comes across as such a selfish bitch, it's really, really hard to see what he's so devoted to. It's almost like, somewhere along the line, the author decided she liked Nancy better than Margaret, but forgot to tell the reader why. I thought there would at least be some doubt as to which wife he would end up with. And it didn't help that we did not get Henry's point of view anymore after he met Nancy. It would have been nice to have some insight into why he made the choices he did.

So, I was so put off I ended up skimming the last 100 pages. I've read some other reviews and a lot of them seem to think the relationship that develops between Margaret and Nancy is the real story and the heart of the book. I'll admit that Nancy's grudging tolerance gradually morphs into respect and Margaret's cold, hard jealousy thaws as they attempt to make the best of a sticky situation, but it wasn't enough of a payoff after such a massive letdown.

I would like to give this two stars because I disliked the story so much, but the author can definitely write and she created characters that evoked strong reactions from me, and just because I couldn't get past Henry's 180 doesn't mean others will, or have, for that matter. So I'm bumping it up to 3.

Rating:  3 Stars out of 5


  1. How disappointing! I won't be in a hurry to read it now although I still want to because of the NZ link.

  2. I have this one in my TBR pile, I'll get to it eventually but it did just slip down a few notches!


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