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Fiction Psychological

Recipe for a Perfect Wife

A Novel

by (author) Karma Brown

Penguin Group Canada
Initial publish date
Dec 2019
Psychological, Family Life, Contemporary Women
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Dec 2019
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Feb 2021
    List Price

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"Recipe for a Perfect Wife is a bold, intoxicating, page-turner. Karma Brown has long been a favorite of mine and this book is proof she just keeps getting better and better. This is a thrilling, audacious story about women daring to take control."--Taylor Jenkins Reid, New York Times bestselling author of Daisy Jones and the Six

When Alice Hale reluctantly leaves a promising career in publicity, following her husband to the New York suburbs, she is unaccustomed to filling her days alone in a big, empty house. However, she is determined to become a writer--and to work hard to build the kind of life her husband dreams of, complete with children.

At first, the old house seems to resent Alice as much as she resents it, but when she finds an old cookbook buried in a box in the basement, she becomes captivated by the cookbook's previous owner: 1950s housewife Nellie Murdoch. As Alice cooks her way through the past, she begins to settle into her new surroundings, even as her friends and family grow concerned that she has embraced them too fully: wearing vintage dresses and pearls like a 1950s housewife, making elaborate old-fashioned dishes like Baked Alaska, and drifting steadily away from her usual pursuits.

Alice justifies the changes merely as research for her novel...but when she discovers that Nellie left clues about her own life within the cookbook's pages--and in a mysterious series of unsent letters penned to Nellie's mother--she quickly realizes that the housewife's secrets may have been anything but harmless. As she uncovers a more sinister side to Nellie's marriage and with pressure mounting in her own relationship, Alice realizes that to protect herself she must harbour and hatch a few secrets of her own...

About the author

KARMA BROWN is an award-winning journalist and author of the bestsellers Come Away with Me, The Choices We Make and In This Moment. In addition to her novels, Karma's writing has appeared in publications such as Redbook, SELF, and Chatelaine. Karma lives just outside Toronto with her husband, daughter, and their labradoodle, Fred. The Life Lucy Knew is her most recent novel. 

Karma Brown's profile page

Excerpt: Recipe for a Perfect Wife: A Novel (by (author) Karma Brown)

4. Nellie

July 19, 1955

Meat Loaf with Oatmeal
1 pound ground steak (round, flank, or hamburg) 1 cup Purity Rolled Oats
1 medium onion 11⁄2 teaspoons salt 1⁄8 teaspoon pepper 1 cup milk or water
1 egg, slightly beaten

Mix all ingredients, place in greased loaf tin, and bake in slow oven (300°F) for 45 minutes. Serve hot or cold. One tin of concentrated tomato soup is a pleasant addition to any meat loaf.

Nellie Murdoch buttoned her dungarees—which she wore only to garden because her husband, Richard, preferred her in skirts—and tapped the Lucky’s white‑and‑red‑foil cigarette package on the table against her hand. Sliding the slender cigarette into her mother‑of‑pearl holder and lighting it, she sat in one of her new chairs—robin’s‑egg blue, like cloudless summer skies—at the kitchen table and smoked, flipping through the latest Ladies’ Home Journal. Richard kept trying to get her to switch to gum (he’d inherited a chewing gum business from his father, the original Richard Murdoch), or at least to a filtered cigarette, sug‑ gesting they were healthier. But Nellie hated all the lip smacking that came with chewing gum and loved her Lucky cigarettes. She liked how smoking changed her voice, made it a little huskier and certainly more interesting when she sang. Nellie had a beau‑ tiful voice, though sadly the only time she used her gift was at church, or in the bath, or to coax out flower petals. Filters promised to remove throat irritation, as her doctor and the magazine advertisements told her, and Nellie wanted no part of that.

Picking a piece of errant tobacco off her tongue, Nellie stopped at the “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” column in the magazine and scanned the three points of view: the husband’s, the wife’s, and the therapist’s. The husband, Gordon, was overwhelmed with his financial responsibilities and irritated that his wife con‑ tinued spending money on things like expensive steak for dinner, clearly not aware of his stress. The wife, Doris, felt ignored by her husband and his silent treatment and would cook him this ex‑ pensive steak to try to make him happy. Nellie shifted in her chair, crossed her legs, and drew deeply on her cigarette, imagining what advice she would offer this couple who had been marinating in marriage for more than a decade. One, she’d tell the wife to quit cooking for a week and see how that helped her husband’s stress. Two, she’d suggest to the husband he might try talking to his wife rather than expect her to read his mind.

She quickly scanned the therapist’s advice, which amounted to: Doris should know her expensive dinners were only making things worse for poor, worried Gordon, and therefore her as well; Gordon should not be expected to have to tell Doris how he’s feeling . . . she should just know. The way any good wife would.

Nellie—who had been Mrs. Richard Murdoch for barely a year—snorted, sympathetic to Doris and Gordon’s plight but certain she would never have to write away for such advice. From the moment Richard, eleven years her senior, plucked her from the crowd at the supper club and declared she would be his wife, Nellie had felt lucky. He might not have been the most attractive compared to her friends’ husbands, nor the most doting, but he certainly had his charm. Richard had swept her off her feet that night—quite literally, as he picked her up in his arms and carried her to his table once he heard it was her twenty‑first birthday, plying her with expensive champagne and adoration until she was tipsy and enchanted. In the two years since, Nellie had discovered that Richard was not a flawless man (was there even such a thing?), but he was an excellent provider and would be an attentive father. What more could a wife expect from her husband?

She stubbed out her cigarette and tapped the holder to release the butt before pouring a glass of lemonade. It was getting on, and she knew she should start dinner soon. Richard had asked for something simple tonight, as he was ill with one of his bad stomach spells. He’d suffered a terrible ulcer a couple of years earlier and it continued to flare up now and again. There’d been a great sale on ground hamburger this week and she’d bought enough for a few meals. Richard kept telling her she didn’t need to scrimp, but she had been raised to spend wisely. To be thrifty wherever possible. Despite Richard’s family’s money—which was now their money, since his mother Grace’s death only four weeks after their wedding—Nellie still liked a deal.

She pulled her mother’s bible—Cookbook for the Modern Housewife—the spine soft thanks to years of use, its pages covered in the spots and stains of meals past, from the shelf. Singing along to Elvis Presley’s latest, “Hound Dog,” Nellie sipped her lemonade, thumbing the pages until she found the one she was looking for, dog‑eared and well used. Meat Loaf with Oatmeal, the note Good for digestion written in her mother’s pristine handwriting beside the ingredients list.

Setting the cookbook aside, she finished her glass of lem‑ onade and decided it was time to get to the garden before the day got away from her entirely. It was scorching outside and a hat would probably be wise, but Nellie liked the sun on her face. The smattering of freckles she’d accumulated already this summer would have horrified her mother‑in‑law, who valued unblemished skin on a woman. But the impossible‑to‑please Grace Murdoch was no longer around to offer her opinions, so Nellie headed outside without a hat.

Nellie loved her garden, and her garden loved her. She was the envy of the neighborhood, her flowers blooming earlier than everyone else’s, staying full and bursting long after others were forced to clip flower heads and admit no matter what they did they would never have flower beds like Nellie Murdoch’s.

Though everyone was dying to know her secret, she claimed there was no secret at all—merely time pruning and weeding, and an understanding of which blooms liked full sun, which thrived in wetter, shady spots. Nothing extraordinary about it, she’d say. But that wasn’t entirely true. Nellie had from an early age mucked about in the garden with her mother, Elsie Swann, who spent more time among her plants than with human companions.

Through the warm months Nellie’s mother was gay, funny, and ever present in her daughter’s life. But once the flowers died with the end of the sunny season, turning to a mass of brown mulch covering the garden soil, Nellie’s mother would retreat inside where no one could reach her. Nellie grew to hate those cold, dark months (she still did), her mother glassy‑eyed at the kitchen table, unaware how much her young daughter was trying to do to keep the household running. To keep her no‑good father from leaving them, the way her grandfather had left her mother and grandmother years ago.

Elsie taught her daughter everything she knew about gardening and cooking during those swatches of light woven be‑ tween her dark moods. For a while things seemed good, Elsie always coming back to herself after the snow melted and the days grew long shadows. Nellie and her mother were an un‑ breakable team, especially after her father left, finding the cheer‑ fulness of a younger, less complicated woman more palatable to his needs.

Sweat trickled between Nellie’s breasts, well encased in her brassiere, and pooled in her belly button and in the creases behind her knees. Perhaps she should have worn shorts, and she considered going upstairs to change out of her dungarees. Never mind, she thought. This heat is good for me. She sang softly to the plants, stopping to caress the tubular magenta petals of the newly sprung bee balm, a favorite of hummingbirds. “Even a plant needs a gentle touch, a gentle song, Nell‑girl,” her mother would say. Nellie wasn’t as green‑fingered as Elsie, but she did learn to love her flowers as much.

Once the garden was weeded and the blooms lullabied, Nellie trimmed a few herb sprigs, macerating a flat parsley leaf with her gloved fingers and holding it to her nose, the smell green and bright and satisfying.

Back in the kitchen Nellie washed and chopped the parsley and added it to the meat mixture, along with a sprinkle of the dried herbs she cultivated in her garden and kept in a cheese shaker in the cupboard. She glanced occasionally at the meat loaf recipe to ensure she hadn’t missed anything. Despite having made this recipe dozens of times, she liked following the steps precisely. Knew it would result in a meat loaf perfectly browned on top yet still juicy inside, the way Richard liked it.

Nellie hoped his stomach had improved as the day wore on; he’d barely been able to get his breakfast down. Perhaps a batch of fennel and peppermint tea with dinner might help—iced, because he didn’t enjoy warm beverages. She hummed to the radio as she trimmed a few mint leaves, hoping Richard wouldn’t be late for dinner again tonight. She was bursting with wonderful news and couldn’t wait to tell him.

Editorial Reviews

“A time-hopping, dark domestic mystery, sprinkled with a dash of female empowerment and a few vintage baking tips.” —Toronto Star
Fans of Daisy Jones and the Six will take to this new novel about women taking control.The Globe and Mail

One of:
CBC's spring reading list: 40 great books to read this season
The Globe and Mail's 36 reads to get you through till spring”
New York Post's “The best books of the week”
Refinery29's “11 Books To Stay Inside With This Winter”
Barnes and Noble's January Books of the Month

Praise for Recipe for a Perfect Wife:
“Recipe for a Perfect Wife is a bold, intoxicating, page-turner. Karma Brown has long been a favorite of mine and this book is proof she just keeps getting better and better. This is a thrilling, audacious story about women daring to take control.”
Taylor Jenkins Reid, New York Times bestselling author of Daisy Jones and the Six
"It’s easy to keep turning the pages as we toggle back and forth between Alice and Nellie, who — breaking news — has a far more complicated life than a stack of Ladies’ Home Journals would lead Alice to believe. . . . And it turns out Nellie has a lot more to teach Alice about being a wife and a woman than how to bake a good batch of cookies. The most important? Take those trappings you resent so much — cooking, gardening, bearing children — embrace them, then wield them like weapons."
New York Times Book Review
Recipe for a Perfect Wife is that wonderful combination of fun to read, thought provoking, and mystery. Told in the voices of two women living in different decades and sprinkled with recipes and advice on how to be a good wife, it makes the reader consider how the roles of women have changed and how they’ve stayed the same. Karma Brown made me smile and gasp in equal measure, and reach for my mom’s old recipe box.”
Ann Hood, bestselling author of The Knitting Circle

“Karma Brown has outdone herself with her best book yet. Dual storylines set decades apart offer one of the most emotionally stirring explorations of women's lives I have ever read. Recipe for a Perfect Wife is a page-turning look at identity, love, legacy, marriage, and yes—food. I devoured it!”
Jamie Brenner, bestselling author of Drawing Home

“I already knew that Karma Brown’s contemporary novels are exemplars of thoughtful, compelling, and truly original fiction. What I didn’t know before reading Recipe For a Perfect Wife is that she is equally at home when writing historical fiction. In her hands, the constrained and often suffocating lives of 1950s women—illuminated in a deftly handled dual narrative that alternates between the present day and 60 years ago—are revealed with real sensitivity, depth, and at times tenderness. And true to Karma Brown, this is also a nail-biter of a tale, and one that kept me up long past my bedtime. This is a delicious and thoroughly satisfying book.”
Jennifer Robson, bestselling author of The Gown

“Recipe for a Perfect Wife is as witty, charming, and insightful as anything Karma Brown has written to date, but it’s also got something more: it cuts straight to the heart of modern marriage by going back in time. Flawless transitions between past and present remind us of how far we’ve come while Brown’s penetrating prose deftly underscores the importance of staying the course on the journey ahead. This timely novel is alarming and unforgettable, illuminating and ominous—and perfect for your next book club discussion!”
Marissa Stapley, bestselling author of The Last Resort
“Recipe for a Perfect Wife masterfully bridges the lives of two women, living sixty years apart, who refuse to fall victim to the patriarchy. While Karma Brown’s signature style remains, it’s laced with something sinister and dark. A brilliant, brooding, timely novel, fraught with tension, that packs a punch. Brown knows how to keep readers riveted until the very last page.”
Mary Kubica, New York Times bestselling author of The Good Girl
“A sly, smart look at two women across two different decades as they navigate marriage, secrets, and society’s expectations. Brown’s vivid storytelling deftly explores the joys and limitations of the role of wife—a wonderful read.”
Fiona Davis, bestselling author of The Chelsea Girls
“Hidden behind the veneer of a domestic novel, Recipe for a Perfect Wife doubles as a slow-burning thriller with a satisfying conclusion. Through her exploration of the past, Brown delivers a timely message about the state of marriage today, and the many ways in which women continue to fight for control over their future.”
Quill & Quire
"[a] page-turning read...[it] tackles the knottier issues of gender stereotypes, female agency and just how many questionable decisions are acceptable in the pursuit of self-discovery."
The Globe and Mail

“This mesmerizing dual narrative of a modern-day woman and a quintessential 1950s housewife is at once witty and charming and dark and sinistermuch like its focus characters. With great care and gravity, this book offers a satisfying look at the lies we tell to feed the secrets we keep.”
Barnes and Noble
“Karma Brown assembles all the ingredients for a tasty domestic drama in Recipe for a Perfect Wife, then sweetens the plot with dual storylines and a vaguely sinister mystery—along with a heaping helping of just desserts.”
The London Free Press

Recipe for a Perfect Wife is a captivating read, full of twists and turns. Brown weaves a thrilling story that parallels the lives of two characters who struggle with being strong, independent women in a patriarchal world."
The Tribune

“Brown ratchets up the tension and pulls off a surprising—but satisfying—ending [in Recipe for a Perfect Wife]. An engaging and suspenseful look at how the patriarchy shaped women's lives in the 1950s and continues to do so today.”

“Brown kills it; her latest is a winner so captivating that fans of modern and old-fashioned stories about women could easily read it in one day.”
Library Journal, starred review

“Readers familiar with Brown’s other novels . . . will be delighted with [her] handling of this material, which transcends decades. As always, Brown entertains as she provokes thought and discussion.”
—The Florida Times-Union

“[Brown] excels at bringing the complexities of women’s lives to the page, and her latest novel questions how much has really changed for women over the last 60 years. The pacing is brisk, the characters are appealing, and both time lines are equally well realized. Thoughtful, clever, and surprisingly dark.”

“A powerful, thought-provoking story about the choices that ultimately come to define and liberate two women who lived 60 years apart.”
Shelf Awareness
“[A] captivating novel. . . . Clever, dark and empowering.”
—Woman's World
"A positively captivating story awaits you in Recipe For A Perfect Wife. . . . A page turner from start to finish."
—Seattle Book Review
"Readers will enjoy watching both women take charge in their lives no matter what the cost."
—The Parkersburg News & Sentinel

“I couldn’t read . . . [Recipe for a Perfect Wife] fast enough and it’s one of those books I put down at the end and thought, “Dang. I wish I’d written that.””

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