True stories of straight female academics: A scholar of Continental political theory briefly drives around the West with an Italian in his Alfa Romeo then divorces her husband; a novelist debates breast reduction or adoption and chooses the latter; an artist pursues her female collaborator, but the project — and their relationship (though not the artist’s marriage) — falls apart; a poet moves to Europe in pursuit of a married lawyer yet ultimately returns home to her family; a feminist professor dreams up scenarios to run off with two of her male students, but nothing happens; an archivist considers dumping husband and children but decides on Prozac instead.
Despite how clichéd they are, these scenarios do not come from the current tide of domestic terror thrillers — they come from real life. But they provide a sociological backdrop for this emerging genre of romance gone awry. Cringeworthy tales of madness: This is the rabbit hole that contemporary heterosexual family life opens for women. How to have a brain — no, how to be brainy — and also be a wife and mother when the tedium of domesticity, no matter how shared it may be, can drive you crazy. Thus causing the special lunacy that besets women in their 40s as age, children, parents, and husbands choke the life out of one’s self. Women of a certain age thought the concerns of the double day and shared housework and child care, these ancient, allegedly middle-class problems, had been banished from feminist discourse — who remembers the 1967 Sue Kaufman novel Diary of a Mad Housewife anymore?
But patriarchy and misogyny just keep rolling along, and no matter how many successful women enter the professions, as Anne-Marie Slaughter reminds us, the constraints of work, both productive and reproductive, continue to keep women in their place. Suppression of women’s talents in the workplace, repression of women’s desires in the family — this heady mix is fueling trends in contemporary mass-market fiction.
All summer long, I diligently read New York Times best sellers aimed at women. Trade paperbacks sold in airport bookstores for travelers; books designed for book clubs, discussion questions inserted as an afterword. Set in London, Chicago, Sydney, New York, these tales of secrets and betrayals reveal the murderous heart of darkness — marriage. With titles that underscore deceit — The Silent Wife, The Husband’s Secret, Before We Met, Before I Go to Sleep (this last written by the man, S.J. Watson, who inaugurated the genre in 2011) — these books revel in the emptiness of trying to have it all in this, our age of the war on terror. They pry open a space for gone girls and the 50 shades of grey; but what happens when you turn 50?
The women in these novels populate pristine suburban or city kitchens, with careful manicures and sleek outfits (even when they once might have worn all black), some highly paid, often with Ph.D.s and publications (but not the jobs that should go with their education). They may have married only recently, feeling the ticking of their biological clocks, or they may wake up one morning to the realization that despite decades of living together for one reason or another (including amnesia), they know nothing about their husbands. Some have dogs, some children — all are superb cooks and jog daily to keep fit. They share glasses of white wine with husbands and friends — they are independent, even creative women (or once thought of themselves as such) and now find they are entangled alone in a dark web; marriage is no picnic.
These novels offer little pleasure, not even of the engrossing page-turner variety claimed by their cover blurbs. With dragging plot lines and dull prose, each book melts into the next, and one vapid couple morphs into another. It’s as though they constitute one big book, the effect magnified because many of the authors blurb and endorse one anther’s work, share fans and sometimes agents and editors. Collectively, they constitute a field, or more aptly, a neighborhood condensed into a single volume, as plots, characters, and even settings cross paths. In brief: Husbands are untrustworthy, and their pasts, their desires, their jobs, their behaviors — all are murky. And in this, these books obliquely take up the problem of domestic violence but seem to turn it on its head. After all, in reality, men commit almost 90 percent of murders, and often their victims are their wives, partners, or children.
As an antidote to this slog, I read them alongside Elena Ferrante’s captivating, immersive Neapolitan tetralogy about the 60-year friendship of Lila and Lenù, which has sparked a mass reading obsession, primarily among women.
In all these novels — even Ferrante’s — men may make money and support their wives, but it is all a house of cards ready to disintegrate at any moment: The formerly independent women who have left good jobs to join their husbands in another country or who might make more money than their men but do so through precarious work — like selling Tupperware — do not lean in. Instead they stand apart with the knowledge that their men are killers, rapists, blackmailers. At best, the slimy guy sleeps with his best friend’s daughter. Once powerful women, now reduced to empty shells, they must be instructed on the basics of daily living. Today, wash the windows; tomorrow, discover that your mate has strangled a woman. But the day after … well. Reader, I murdered him.
Since early 2014, British journalists have tracked the explosion of "chick noir" novels aimed at and mostly written by women. As Rebecca Whitney, author of The Liar’s Chair, commented, the genre’s readers and authors are often married with children; they married late after establishing careers and find themselves awash in daily life — a life often tracked obsessively on social media and couched in the psychobabble of relationships. The books make clear that knowing someone, even in this era of Internet stalking, is impossible — and that’s terrifying. The past (which Faulkner declared undead) is highly suspicious; we must live in the moment. Lucie Whitehouse (author of Before We Met) defines "‘chick noir’ as psychological thrillers that explore the fears and anxieties experienced by many women. They deal in the dark side of relationships, intimate danger, the idea that you can never really know your husband or partner. … In these books, danger sleeps next to you."
Despite the popularity of Gone Girl, making it appear an American phenomenon, the genre first took off in the U.K., where Gothic horror and CCTV have a long and ubiquitous presence in the streets and psyches. British critics have been quick to point out obvious antecedents: Patricia Highsmith, Daphne du Maurier, even Charlotte Brontë. But what of other modern influences, the age of terrorism, the perpetual wars that dislocate populations on a scale not seen since World War II, and mass government and corporate surveillance exposed by Edward Snowden? What is it about contemporary life that generates these novels and their avid readers now?
I have a few theories: These novels update the postwar domestic noir plots of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (The Blank Wall, 1947, which became Max Ophuls’s film The Reckless Moment) and Margaret Millar (Do Evil in Return, 1950) or Cornell Woolrich’s 1948 novel, I Married a Dead Man (which became the Barbara Stanwyck movie No Man of Her Own), among many others.
But these are hunches. I sought answers from those who seem to be the target audience — former Bridget Jones’s Diary/Sex in the City followers, maturing now, some married and trying to figure out what it means to enter into a legally binding relationship with another, in these cases, of the opposite sex. Some have professional careers, others dwell among the precariat, working in a desultory fashion as artists, union organizers, overseas ESL teachers. So-called "chick lit" is just too smiley-faced for these post-recession readers. My unscientific sample of interviews with women in their 20s and 30s leads me to a number of conclusions about marriage as an institution.
Why marry at all? With almost half of marriages ending in divorce, the substantial increase in single-parent households across all incomes, and the small but growing trend of women’s out-earning their male partners even as high-earning women refuse to "lean in," preferring not the "mommy track" but the mommy life, why bother? Moreover, the topic of sexual violence — always important within feminist discussion and always a staple of popular culture (Mariska Hargitay notwithstanding, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit offers the scariest example of television’s fetishizing female victims) — has re-entered the public sphere as colleges discover widespread sexual assaults on campus and develop antirape campaigns beyond "no means no" to include "yes means yes." Moreover, Charlotte Gilman’s creeping women in The Yellow Wall-Paper come more clearly into relief as antecedents to the private manias found in these plots. (A colleague paired this 1892 tale with Gone Girl in a modern fiction course.) Students are on guard against potential disappointments: They know that even the most put-together guy ends up falling short.
Enter these cautionary tales of fear, sin, redemption, forgiveness — essentially Christian homilies about the consequences of sex and the lure of violence — and the dangers of everyday life. But there is more to this — because the wronged wives get payback, guilt-free payback. If you can’t hire a hitman to off your longtime live-in lover (The Silent Wife), then you must kill your husband (or the guy posing as him) in self-defense when his murderous rage turns on you, the love of his life to whom he endlessly declares his love (Before We Met and Before I Go to Sleep). If you see something, say something. Otherwise bite your tongue, and then your murdering husband’s secret will mutilate (literally) your family, even as it binds it together (The Husband’s Secret).
Noir fiction from the late 1940s amalgamated the femmes fatales found in 1930s fiction (by James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett), who then populated the films noirs of 1940s B-movies, with the domestic containment of postwar suburban anxieties. Women may have moved back into the home, one now overflowing with shiny labor-saving appliances and polo-shirted children, but the unspoken specter of nuclear annihilation or Communist subversion clouds this idyll — as does the encroachment of middle age.
In The Blank Wall, a Connecticut housewife, caring for her children and father alone, planting a victory garden while her husband is stationed somewhere in the Pacific, discovers that her daughter has been attending art school in the city. With a husband away at war, "she must stand guard over the house … protect the inmates," and shield her daughter from the law after she kills an unsavory man she met at a bar.
In Judith Merril’s Shadow on the Hearth (1950), after New York City is attacked with an atomic bomb, a Westchester County mother resists the advances of the local civil-defense guard as she protects her daughters from radiation poisoning.
A dedicated doctor involved with a married lawyer becomes enmeshed in a series of murders after she feels guilty for refusing to perform an illegal abortion on a desperate young woman in Margaret Millar’s Do Evil in Return.
In each of these novels, the home is recast as an uncanny zone of fear: A blackmailing murderer helps carry groceries; a Trotskyist physics teacher hides out in the attic and helps ward off nuclear fallout; a prominent lawyer sips Scotch with his lover to cover up his hypochondriac wife’s crimes. Motherhood, love, and career plunge women into disasters lurking in the two-car garage.
Of course, the Gothic house is hardly new. Jane Eyre contends with Rochester’s dark secrets, his past hidden in plain sight. The heroine of The Yellow Wall-Paper senses that her attic room was an asylum, not a nursery. For that matter, the House of Atreus was no place of refuge as its murderous members rampaged through its lineage. Domesticity is a bloody affair. How to express rage and contain violence at the same time — this is the job of society and the family, which must rely on any means necessary to curb domestic terror. These recent thrillers, based in a thoroughly banal middle-class white world of self-made men — guys who can rehab old buildings for profit or develop Internet start-ups — and once-feisty, intelligent yet unambitious women, dredge up the horrors latent in the marriage plot. What the hell do you know about this guy you live with, this guy you love, anyway?
If Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights veiled both the soot-filled skies of an industrializing England clattering with railroads and the darker skin of Britain’s colonized subjects within their uncanny houses, the treacherous women and hapless, doomed men of 1930s and 1940s noir fiction and film emerged out of the devastation of a world in upheaval from Depression and Nazism. In these works, the telephone crosses lines of communication from the bedroom to gangsters to the cops and the feds.
The heroines of contemporary chick noir, in contrast to their femme-fatale forerunners, are good girls — they floss daily and bake hot cross buns for Easter. Despite international travel and global corporations, their world has collapsed into the narrow confines of a perfectly appointed home, but one under constant threat — not of a foreign enemy, but of the sleeper cell and surveillance camera, not just CCTV, but perpetual selfies as well. These are novels of our moment, the age of Internet dating and the war on terror, an era of random violence and organized invasions of privacy, when anyone might turn out to be someone other, and far less savory, than one bargained for.
Paula Rabinowitz is a professor of English at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Her most recent book is American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street (Princeton University Press, 2014).