Saturday, February 8, 2014

Review: The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress

This month at She Reads, we read The Wife, The Maid, and The Mistress by Ariel Lawhon.  Set mostly in the 1930's, the story is based on the disappearance of a real person, judge Joseph Crater, whose case has never been solved.  The book focuses on three women connected to him in some way, and the decisions they make that change their lives, and his, forever.
Synopsis from Barnes and Noble:
A tantalizing re-imagining of a scandalous mystery that rocked the nation in 1930—Justice Joseph Crater's infamous disappearance—as seen through the eyes of the three women who knew him best.
They say behind every great man, there's a woman. In this case, there are three. Stella Crater, the judge's wife, is the picture of propriety draped in long pearls and the latest Chanel. Ritzi, a leggy showgirl with Broadway aspirations, thinks moonlighting in the judge's bed is the quickest way off the chorus line. Maria Simon, the dutiful maid, has the judge to thank for her husband's recent promotion to detective in the NYPD. Meanwhile, Crater is equally indebted to Tammany Hall leaders and the city's most notorious gangster, Owney "The Killer" Madden.
On a sultry summer night, as rumors circulate about the judge's involvement in wide-scale political corruption, the Honorable Joseph Crater steps into a cab and disappears without a trace. Or does he?
After 39 years of necessary duplicity, Stella Crater is finally ready to reveal what she knows. Sliding into a plush leather banquette at Club Abbey, the site of many absinthe-soaked affairs and the judge's favorite watering hole back in the day, Stella orders two whiskeys on the rocks—one for her and one in honor of her missing husband. Stirring the ice cubes in the lowball glass, Stella begins to tell a tale—of greed, lust, and deceit. As the novel unfolds and the women slyly break out of their prescribed roles, it becomes clear that each knows more than she has initially let on..
I have to admit, I was initially unsure of this book.  I went into it knowing nothing about Joseph Crater, or really even much about this time period.  I have to say however, that once I started the story I had a hard time putting it down.
First off, all three women in the story were interesting. They were also complete opposites.  We have Stella, the wife, who dutifully stands on the arm of her husband and chooses to look the other way when it comes to his many indiscretions.  Maria, the maid, works for the Crater's and is desperate to have a child with her husband although they have had no luck.  Her husband's job promotion comes from Crater, but not without strings attached.  And Ritzi, the mistress, who left her husband for the glitz and glamour of New York, and is now paying the price being used by the men who helped her get there, Crater included.  I loved all three of these women and wanted them all to be free and to be treated as equals.  
One thing that was very evident about the time period in the story is that women were not considered to be important decision makers.  You could see it in every aspect of this book but especially with Stella.  She was a woman with ideas and strong beliefs who kept quiet because that was what was expected of her.  The higher her husband rose, the worse she was treated.  There were times in the book where I just wanted the women to put their foot down and demand respect from the men in their lives.  The only one who got any respect was Maria, whose husband truly loved her but was forced to keep secrets from her. 
Owny Madden was truly the top villain in this book.  He was a real person nicknamed, "The Killer" who was involved in organized crime and prohibition in the 30's.  He was a "killer" in the story also and I despised him.  I hated the way he owned everything and everyone and was angry when he ruined people's lives for their own success.  I empathized for everyone who was stuck in his web and unable to get out.  Crater becoming involved with him in the story was the beginning of everyone's undoing.
I have two favorite scenes in the book.  One was when all three women ended up in the bathroom together at the theater.  Perfectly done in my opinion.  It was at this moment that I could feel a connection between them, a certain power they exuded together in that one room even though they hardly spoke.  The second was during a flashback to a celebration when the three women were together again.  This part made me shiver.  I had so much respect for them because they demonstrated such strength in a time where most women would just settle and make the best of it.  These women were heroine's.
Finally, the whole premise of this book was just fascinating.  I wanted to know more about this case because I think it is pretty amazing that this guy was never found.  Even though most of the story is fiction, I absolutely loved the way the author imagined it happening.  Creative and intriguing with an engaging setting.  I highly recommend it and am going to give it five stars.  If you like a historical mystery, this a great choice! 


  1. II loved this review. This book sounds fascinating. I've not seen it before. Thanks!