‘The Wife’: scenes from a marriage

Some surprise endings completely subvert what we’ve just read or seen.

The finales of “Gone Girl” and “No Way Out” angered almost as many people as they pleased, because it can be unpleasant to realize how gullible we are (i.e. open to the same manipulations as the characters in the story).

The new Alafair Burke novel, “The Wife” (HarperCollins), contains some huge surprises as we race to the end of her story, but they deepen what we have already experienced. Burke peels the layers skillfully and realistically so that all the questions we’ve had are answered.

“The Wife” has a lot more going for it than thriller mechanics, however.  Burke tells a story that could not be more topical. A famous author and college professor is accused of coming on to one of his students in his office/changing room.

Angela Powell believes her husband – at first. There have been problems in the marriage – of a sexual nature — but the bonds of love between Angela and Jason are strong in the opening chapters. Not only does the man seem to adore his wife, he also loves Spencer, the son Angela brought into the marriage.

Jason wants to adopt Spencer but in the rush of life and career that action has been delayed.

Burke crosscuts to a New York City police investigator named Corinne Duncan whose role in the story becomes more important with each new chapter. As is often the case in these sex scandals, a second and more serious accuser against Jason steps forward and Angela’s faith in her husband is put to a severe test.

“The Wife” digs very deeply into the role of sex in marriage and the sometimes profound differences in what men and women are looking for sexually, and how that can lead to infidelity.

One of the reasons women like Angela – or any of the more celebrated cheated-upon wives – might be willing to forgive a straying husband is their own attitude toward sex. “I enjoyed the closeness of it, and had learned to appreciate the physical pleasure that came with it,” she tells us. “I just didn’t need it or necessarily want it, other than as an indication that my marriage was normal – that I was normal.”

We live in a culture where pornography and apps that guarantee quick connections are only a click away on our phones, but men and women are still often at cross purposes when it comes to sex. Even a quick look at Tinder will show you women who are mistaking it as a doorway to romance in spite of all the evidence that most of the men there just want to have fun.

What makes “The Wife” so compelling is the way the author looks at this sexual divide with such candor and with a willingness to examine the male side of the equation honestly.

Alafair Burke has been one of our finest suspense novelists for some time now, but in “The Wife” she takes new risks, and the result is her best novel yet.