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Sunday, November 30, 2014

'Wife on the Run' by Fiona Higgins

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From the BLURB:

A mother's greatest fear... A wife's worst nightmare... What would you do?

When two technology-related disasters hit within days of each other, Paula knows her comfortable suburban life has been irrevocably blown apart. One involves the public shaming of her teenage daughter, the other is a discovery about her husband that shocks her to her core. With her world unravelling around her, Paula does the only thing that makes any sense to her: she runs away from it all.

She pulls her children out of school and takes off on a trip across Australia with her elderly father and his caravan. The only rule is No Technology - no phones, no Facebook, no Instagram, no tablets, games or computers. It's time to get back to basics and learn how to be a family again. It all sounds so simple - and for a while, it is. But along the way Paula will meet new, exciting complications, and realise that running away is only a temporary solution. The past has to be faced before the future can begin.

Fiona Higgins is the author of the critically-acclaimed, bestselling 2012 novel ‘The Mothers' Group’ which I, regrettably, have not got round to reading yet. ‘Wife on the Run’ is her latest novel, and has ensured that I’ll be going back to read her breakout hit.

‘Wife on the Run’ is set in modern-day Melbourne, and follows the increasingly tangled and crumbling lives of the McInnes family. Wife and mother, Paula, has been called to her daughter’s school after a pornographic image is uploaded to Facebook and attributed to her and a friend. Teenager Caitlin is gently told to take a few weeks off school while the scandal dies down, the school scrambles to get the image removed from Facebook and some much-needed cyber-bullying education can be organised for the community.

Paula’s husband, meanwhile, is feeling unloved at home and finds temptation everywhere but with his disinterested wife. Hamish thinks their marriage was sidetracked by their children – Caitlin and Lachlan – and it’s never quite righted itself. So Hamish seeks sexual gratification elsewhere and as close to not-really-infidelity as he can get – cyberspace.

When the virtual world intrudes on the McInnes family, everything is turned on its head. Paula decides to take the kids and her recently widowed father, Sid, on a caravan trip from Melbourne to the top-end of Australia. She needs some time away from Hamish after discovering his online secret, and she also wants to fulfil a life-long road trip dream.

His curvy, intelligent, committed wife.The only girl with a university degree who’d ever agreed to go out with him; all the other chicks had been too stuck-up. Watching them across the room every Thursday night at the trendy pub near the university, Doggo and Hamish had called them the ‘Fig Jam’ girls. An acronym for their attitude – Fuck I’m Good, Just Ask Me. Skinny girls with chambray shirts and plums in their mouths, studying law, science medicine. But Paula had been a standout; her big, open smile, her infectious laughter, a not-so-serious degree. And no tickets on herself, either. She hadn’t thought twice about going out with him.
They’d got together, got married, had two great kids. He’d made the money and she’d run the home.Except now she wasn’t there, for the first time in seventeen years.

‘Wife on the Run’ is an interesting novel – there’s a bit of ‘How Stella Got Her Groove Back’ to it, but the plot trigger is a look into what happens when the virtual world intrudes upon the real, and our false identities are revealed to the world … in fact, the whole novel is an exploration into ripping off the masks we wear, and exposing our true (sometimes ugly) selves. 

I can see a bit of Liane Moriarty in Higgin’s writing – both women have a keen eye for observing the insidious suburban underbelly, and exploring ‘suburban-paradise lost’ through outlandish but oddly believable storylines. I would highly-recommend Fiona Higgins in fact, for anybody who loves Liane Moriarty’s books.

Higgins touches on cyber-sex and cyber-cheating in this book, as well as cyber-bullying and online identity – and all of these grubby online liaisons are being tapped out on the keyboards inside family homes, behind picket fences, along tree-lined streets. Investigations into the virtual contrast beautifully with Paula’s road-trip with the kids and her dad that sees them navigating the far-reaches of Australia: along the Nullarbor Plain and through country townships where fast-friends are made and sausages sizzled.

We actually get two sides to the story in ‘Wife on the Run’, which is told in third person but offers both Paula and Hamish’s version of events. From Hamish we get to read his slippery-slope into a seriously questionable online hook-up, and then we also get to read Paula navigate her hurt and distrust in equally destructive, morally-questionable ways.

It’s odd, but I wouldn’t say Hamish or Paula were terribly nice characters … but I did enjoy spending time with them. Even Hamish whose moral slip-up is truly contentious, I liked seeing things from his perspective. They’re both so flawed, and the stresses they’re under do not bring out the grace in either of them – but I understood how, once they’d started digging holes for themselves, they found it nearly impossible to find their way out. Maybe for that reason I found the ending quite abrupt, because it swings back to following Paula for the climax but I was rather hoping to get Hamish’s final take on things too… he’d been with readers for as much of the book’s journey as Paula, and I really felt the book needed one more chapter following his fall-out to feel properly concluded.

I really loved ‘Wife on the Run’. It’s a rather outlandish book at times, particularly towards the end, but I found Higgins’ investigations into our online moral compass fascinating and revolting, and very appropriate for the times. Paula and Hamish were both fantastically flawed – but I enjoyed reading their unravelling (of both lies and lives) and found myself rooting for both of them, even though neither comes out as hero or villain by book’s end.



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