What You Don’t Know About Your Neighbors Can Hurt You

THE WHISPERS, by Ashley Audrain

The other night at dinner, a friend told me that her debut thriller would be promoted as upmarket women’s fiction. My heart sank. I know that bookstores and sales teams rely on categories, but this one has always rubbed me the wrong way. If women’s fiction is meant to illuminate the ways in which women exist in the world — casting a light on their triumphs, strengths, oppressions and fears — shouldn’t the books in this category also be essential reading for men?

That’s certainly true of “The Whispers,” Ashley Audrain’s follow-up to her best-selling debut, “The Push.” I want every man to read this book despite promotional materials trumpeting its appeal to women. The setup is familiar, straight out of “Little Fires Everywhere” or “Big Little Lies” — an upscale enclave where semigracious living masks a web of extramarital affairs and buried secrets. One afternoon at a birthday party, guests hear Whitney, a woman of perfect taste with manners to match, screaming at her 10-year-old, Xavier. When the boy falls through his bedroom window a few months later, winding up in a coma, the accident reveals not just the darkness beneath his mother’s high polish but the resentments and festering hatreds on gentrifying Harlow Street.

At the center of “The Whispers” is a question: Is there more than one way to be a mother? Does the experience require all-consuming self-sacrifice, what Whitney calls “voluntary death,” or can a mother put her own needs first? Is it possible for her to be a responsible parent while disliking the job — or even the child?

Whitney, for one, “hates the plastic bins full of toys, and hates sitting on the floor. She hates making the noise of a car and pretending to be a cougar. She hates the mundanity. She hates trying to sound light and cheerful and surprised when she isn’t. She hates feigning interest in things that aren’t real.”

Then there’s her best friend, Blair, who by her own admission has “never made a choice with only her needs in mind, just because she wanted to.” She’s “lonely, desperately and achingly lonely, the way a mother with a family is never supposed to be.”

Rebecca is a dedicated E.R. doctor who doesn’t have children. And Mara is an older neighbor who still mourns her mentally ill son, who died decades ago. These two add another layer of nuance to Audrain’s considerations: Must a woman be a mother in order to be complete? What kind of mother are you after your child is gone?

Rage unites these women — rage that is expertly, subtly and powerfully rendered by Audrain. They suffer quietly, buffeted by an undertow of anger at subtle accommodations to husbands and children. They have each in their own way settled for what Blair brilliantly calls the “security of living diminished.”

Audrain is unwilling to court her readers’ sympathies, allowing her characters to be imperfect, vulnerable, furious and unrepentant. She examines their fury and presents their unvarnished emotions without passing judgment or apologizing.

At times, “The Whispers” can be a bit of a slow burn. It toggles too frequently between characters and time periods during the three days when Whitney waits at her son’s bedside, with his fate as the engine that keeps the book running through the final scene. It’s a common device, dipping into the past to explain the present, in this case the days leading up to Xavier’s accident and its aftermath, when most of the time the present will do.

As a result, we often find ourselves ahead of the characters as they uncover secrets and truths they’ve hidden from themselves. But there is a voyeuristic pleasure in watching the collisions of couples when their infidelities come to light, as well as their nasty secrets and petty jealousies. Even if the narrative is occasionally freighted with detail and stage direction, these diversions somehow never muddy the simplicity and honesty of the characters’ ire. This is both refreshing and disquieting. And, after Audrain has lulled you into a sense of resignation over her characters’ fates, she delivers a sucker-punch ending you’ll have to read twice to believe.

Ivy Pochoda’s most recent novel is “These Women.”

THE WHISPERS | By Ashley Audrain | 336 pp. | Pamela Dorman Books | $28

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