Dexter meets Mr. and Mrs. Smith in this wildly compulsive debut thriller about a couple whose fifteen-year marriage has finally gotten too interesting….
That tagline alone made me immediately pick up a copy of Samantha Downing’s debut thriller My Lovely Wife, which came out in March. From this previously unknown author comes the story of a couple—the unnamed narrator and his wife Millicent. Much like Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, the narrator of My Lovely Wife is never named, and we only know him by the alias “Tobias”, a name he uses to chat to potential victims. For clarity, I’ll refer to him as Tobias in this review. Tobias and Millicent have been married for fifteen years, and they now have two kids, Rory and Jenna. Rory is obsessed with video games and plays golf. Jenna is obsessed with her phone (lol! millennials [technically she’d be Generation Z], amirite!?!) and plays soccer. For the better part of fifteen years, Millicent and Tobias have lived their life in a dull, suburban monotony in a nice part of Florida: Millicent is a real-estate agent, and Tobias is a tennis coach. Until everything changes. Millicent’s sociopath sister appears at their doorstep, and before they know it, Millicent and Tobias are a serial-killing team. Tobias chooses the women. Millicent kills them.
At least until they decide to up the ante. Now the press and the public know about the victims. Tobias decides to start writing letters pretending to be a vanished local serial killer, Owen Oliver Riley. Millicent takes part in the madness. All the while living a normal life. But can it last? Will they get away with it? At least one of them will go down…
Unlike most of the psychological thrillers I’ve read since The Girl on the Train, I didn’t finish My Lovely Wife very quickly. The first half to three-quarters of the book was pretty slow-paced, which might be a negative for most, because Isn’t this a THRILLER about a serial killing couple?! However, it made a lot of sense. Tobias’s life is monotonously routine, but in a weird way. He’s off stalking potential victims and cheating on his wife in between tennis lessons with the regulars and everything that goes with his wife’s meticulous scheduling. Even as his life becomes more stressful, as the hunt for the killer intensifies, Tobias recites this as if it’s just the usual stuff; as if your wife killing women you’ve faux-flirted with, and taking your daughter to a psychiatrist because of her anxiety over the serial killer in town, as if these are completely normal things. I believe it makes Tobias more of an interesting character. He’s stuck in the web of Millicent as much as her victims. Alternatively, a lot of this monotony was taken up by flashbacks, many of which took from the present moment and added nothing new. While it was nice to learn more about these characters, I didn’t need to be torn from the present day by yet another Previously On The Early Years of Tobias and Millicent.
I like the change in pace of a psychological thriller with a male narrator instead of female. It’s interesting to hear from a different first-person perspective, especially when Tobias is more complicit than, say, Nick Dunne.
I had no idea how My Lovely Wife was going to end, and had multiple theories, only some of which ended up correct. What was the truth about Millicent’s relationship with her sister Holly? Of course that revelation can be guessed. But I wasn’t expecting Millicent’s motivation for the big revelation near the end of the book. It was a good reveal, and I can see (based on her character development) why something so little would set off the chain reaction of events that led to everything happening. There was foreshadowing I didn’t realise, but by that point I was speed-reading, wanting to see how Tobias would deal with all the blows being dealt to him. I wanted him to be fine, while also being concerned I was supporting someone who was allowing horrible things to happen. The big revelation with Holly makes you horrified at what Tobias did, but also understand how he fell for the story, and you feel a whole tumult of emotions, but you’re also still thinking, Why am I still supporting these people? For such unlikeable characters, I found myself wanting them to win far too much.
There was also a lot of very-obvious foreshadowing. Downing kept pointedly referring to the eye drops and Tobias not understanding why they were there. I was annoyed how obviously there was going to be something massive revealed about the eye drops, but I didn’t know what. It does get revealed, and confronted in the Final Confrontation. On the other hand, I kept expecting something to come of Trisha, the wife of Tobias’s friend Andy, but it was just a red herring, and only Andy has any role of note in the final act. Argh, you fooled me!
I had a massive problem with the Final Confrontation. After the Big Revelation, I kept reading and reading, about one hundred pages in a day, because it was so damn interesting and I wanted to know how Tobias would deal with it all. The Big Revelation was stupid. While there have been negative reviews criticising the Big Revelation for not being a waste of time, I can understand why it happened. Tobias did not know about the evidence that could help him, and he was worried about Rory and Jenna, oblivious to the fact he is equally dangerous. However, what happens next is ridiculous. Why is he immediately trusted? Did something happen behind closed doors, when he was away, that made the kids immediately know he was the one to trust? Why should Jenna immediately believe his truth? Just because Tobias is saying something, does not mean it is true, when all the evidence points to not trusting him. How could a thirteen year old girl do that? I understand it was to show Jenna is more like her parents than even her parents realise, and she spends most of the book anxious about the Big Bad and this is part of her character arc, but…it’s ridiculous. And then it’s over…bam!…and they all just deal with it and move away!
Despite this, the epilogue after the Final Confrontation is a great ending. Tobias rechristening himself to what he wants is exactly the way to show the reader: Did justice really get served? Is he an utter moron, or was it all an act? Of course we know he is an idiot; he did, after all, fall into so many traps, and barely escapes. You know it’s a 2010s Gone Girl-esque thriller when the bad guys aren’t all bad guys, and justice isn’t served. While Tobias isn’t responsible for a lot of what’s happened, and Millicent is OTT in her responses, he is still guilty of being an accomplice, and the ending shows he hasn’t learnt a whole lot from the beginning. The only difference: He’s not following monotony, normalcy, routine anymore. Does that make him more or less dangerous than his wife?
One of the concerns I had, nothing to do with the author, was the two different covers for the book. The edition I read (pictured at the beginning) perfectly encapsulated the book. However, I learnt there was a second cover:
This cover does not do the book anywhere near enough justice. While it is a nice cover, nothing exactly wrong with it, it just looks generic. Anyone going into the book may feel like My Lovely Wife is just another generic humdrum 2010s psychological thriller. Who even is the woman on the cover? It’s certainly not Millicent. The gorgeous cover of the edition I read definitely amps up my score a little, even though you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover—and don’t!—because there are some average books with beautiful covers…just have a look at Final Girls by Riley Sager.
The Lovely Wife is a book by debut author Samantha Downing that sounds generic in name, but is an interesting, fascinating read. If you want to read about a fucked-up couple who aim to keep their marriage alive in murderous ways, then have to deal with the repercussions, then this is the book for you. Despite a disappointing final confrontation and some unnecessary flashbacks, this was definitely an excellent page-turner. I will definitely be reading more from this author.