A young woman awakens in the middle of the Arizona desert with no recollection of who she is or how she got there. All she possesses are a nagging fear of being pursued and a slip of paper with the name Captain Michael Devereaux, Luke Air Force Base tucked into the waistband of her pants. She has no idea who this man is or what he might mean to her, but after catching a ride into Phoenix with a kind stranger, she reluctantly calls the Air Force base hoping to find some answers. Captain Devereaux seems to know who she is and tells her to stay put until he comes for her. When he arrives, Michael angrily confronts her, telling her that her name is Laurel and she is his wife who walked out on him and their son two years earlier. He comes from a wealthy family and takes her to their estate just outside of Tucson where she meets their child, Jimmy, and the rest of his family.
No one, including Michael, believes her story of amnesia, and if she is Laurel, she cannot imagine how she ever could have left her child. Feeling alone and afraid of a husband who is a stranger to her and a family who seems to disdain her very presence, Laurel considers leaving, but knows in her heart that Jimmy needs her. If she is his mother, she cannot abandon him again. Laurel slowly tries to rebuild her life, but frightening things begin to happen, making her think that someone may be trying to kill her. Memories still seem to elude her, but as bits and pieces start to return, she becomes even more fearful and paranoid. Laurel isn't certain if her feelings are justified or if she is simply loosing her mind. All she knows is that she must find the truth no matter what and that her life and those of her newfound family may depend on it.
I can't recall exactly where I first saw a recommendation for Michael's Wife, but I believe it was in one of the many romance forums to which I belong. In a few places, I've seen it categorized as romance or romantic suspense, but it isn't exactly either. There is very little, if any, truly romantic element to it. It is actually part mystery, as the reader spends the entire story wondering if the heroine is really who everyone thinks she is and if so, where she has been for two years and what made her leave in the first place. Michael's Wife also has a strong gothic element as the heroine battles her own psyche, fearing nearly everyone she meets and wondering if she's simply crazy. The author did a great job with creating an atmosphere that was just a little creepy with an almost constantly eerie, ominous feel, especially surrounding the Devereaux estate in Tucson. Once the story moved to Phoenix, the mood lightened a little, but there was still an overhanging sense of doom and gloom while waiting for the truth to be revealed.
Michael's Wife was both written and set in the early 1970's, during the height of the Vietnam era. I really felt like I'd been transported back in time to the decade of my childhood but in my current place of residence which was a very cool juxtaposition for me. Michael fought in Vietnam and the latter parts of the story are populated with hippies who are both peace activists and anti-war protesters. That whole culture comes to the forefront as well. Of course, there are no cell phones or computers, only what we would consider basic conveniences like modern appliances and a television. There wasn't even air conditioning, only a swamp cooler, in the sweltering desert summer. Don't even get me started on the hideous colors of fashions and interior decorations.;-) Not only was the era quite apparent in the physical aspects, but also in the social attitudes, especially toward women. They were still primarily the homemakers, generally taking a more subservient role with the assumption that if there was trouble in the marriage, she was the one at fault. Many people didn't seem to think twice about a man possibly abusing his wife and even kind of made fun of it in a darkly humorous way. There also seemed to be some stigma attached to mental illness. Strangely enough I wasn't overly bothered by these things like I normally would be, and I think that was mainly because of the context in which they were placed. It was almost like reading a historical novel in which the time and place were very vivid in my mind's eye.
The entire book is told from Laurel's third-person point of view. She was a fascinating character. The human mind never ceases to amaze me, so it was an intellectual, psychological and philosophical treat for my own brain to think of how a person can forget everything about themselves including their own name, but still have a knowledge and understanding of the world around them. Laurel was truly alone in her misery, a woman reduced to a fearful almost paranoid amnesiac state. I thought that she was very brave to stick around for the sake of the child she believed might be hers, even though no one believed that she couldn't remember and basically seemed to despise her. Jimmy became the rock to which she clung for strength and inspiration when things got difficult, and I could admire her for her commitment to being a good mother who refused to leave him again, even if she couldn't remember leaving the first time. She's a very down to earth woman who isn't really comfortable in the wealth and opulence of the Devereaux estate, but neither is she off-put by the almost slum-like housing in which they live when Michael takes her back to the Air Force base. There were other times though, when she seemed more weak. There is a part of me that wishes she had fought harder to get someone, particularly Michael, to believe her, but I also found her personality and attitudes to be pretty normal and believable given the time in which the story takes place.
Although we only see him through Laurel's eyes, Michael is easily the second most important character in the story. He is a very angry and tormented man who under other circumstances would have easily been sympathetic. However, even though he isn't what I would consider a romantic hero, he did remind me of heroes from the old bodice-ripper romances of the 1970's. Occasionally, he would do something nice for Laurel or seem like he was still drawn to her and wanted to reconcile, but more often than not he was a cold, dark, dangerous and sometimes even violent man. After learning about his childhood, I could see why he might feel betrayed when his wife seemed to simply walk out on him and their son, but I couldn't fathom why, if he truly loved and cared about her, he didn't try harder to find her or at least believe that she had amnesia when she returned. Therein may lie the problem, as he wasn't even able to admit that he was ever in love with her. Michael was certainly a very complex man, and while I was never comfortable with his brutish episodes of behavior, I wasn't as bothered by it as I would have been had this actually been a romance novel. I also think that having him be an enigma helped to play into the notion that he was almost every bit as suspect as anyone else in the story.
Michael's Wife got off to a somewhat slow start as the author takes her time introducing each potential suspect while Laurel struggles with trying to remember the past and how she could have possibly done some of the things they claimed she did. Eventually, the narrative begins to build momentum and becomes more intense and engaging until by the end, I was nearly biting my nails waiting for the denouement. I could have done with a few more clues being dropped earlier in the story, but I thought the author did a great job with drawing the reader into the confusion that Laurel felt, when she finally started to remember bits and pieces. In fact, it was quite strange just how "real" the story actually felt to me, in more ways than one. It was almost like something that could have really happened and would certainly make for a great movie, in my opinion. Michael's Wife was my first read by Marlys Millhiser. I was also surprised to discover that it appears to be her debut novel, making it pretty impressive for a first effort. I did enjoy the book and would be open to trying something else by Ms. Millhiser if the mood for reading this genre strikes again.
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