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The Pretend Wife    by Bridget Asher order for
Pretend Wife
by Bridget Asher
Order:  USA  Can
Bantam, 2010 (2009)
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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Bridget Asher, who also wrote My Husband's Sweethearts, breezily addresses some of life's big questions in a low key manner in her latest novel, The Pretend Wife. In it, a series of serendipitous events gives Gwen Merchant (whose ability to live wholeheartedly has been limited by childhood tragedy) a second chance.

Married for three years to affable anesthesiologist Peter Stevens, Gwen feels 'like some gilled species unable to breathe up on the mudflats' and observes her own life as something curious: 'Life with Peter was as safe as a brand-new Volvo.' In line for ice cream, she hears a ghost from her past, Elliot Hull, 'the brooder', and is shocked by the intensity of her own reaction.

At a party, where they all imbibe too much, Elliot shares the fact that he's lied to his dying mother, who desperately wants to see him married before her end. Now his mother wants to meet this imaginary wife. Gwen's friend - and husband - drunkenly volunteer her to be the pretend wife. Though Peter recants the following day - and Elliot does not press the matter - Gwen decides to go ahead.

The family dynamics at Elliot's lake house are a revelation to Gwen, who connects strongly with his sister Jennifer, his niece and nephew, and his mother Vivian. Though Gwen is introduced to Vivian as Elizabeth, Vivian (who had met her once long before) tells her 'I'd recognize you anywhere.' Before Gwen goes back to her own life, Vivian makes her promise to 'Tell him the truth'.

Vivian gives Gwen the impetus to dig into the childhood tragedy that previously defined her, and she discovers a great deal that is different from what she has always believed. Gwen persists through revelations, misunderstandings, friendship, and a miracle, to the point where she can live her 'life with courage and honesty'.

Bridget Asher's The Pretend Wife is a wonderful and wise read. At the back of the book is an excerpt from The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted (due out next spring) which is now on my must read list.

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