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Review: Alafair Burke's 'The Wife' is a gripping look at another side of sexual harassment

Published Feb. 1, 2018

When Alafair Burke began writing The Wife a couple of years ago, she couldn't have known just how timely it would be.

Burke's new novel, her 12th (plus four books co-written with crime-fiction doyenne Mary Higgins Clark), really does seem ripped from the headlines: A charismatic academic turned celebrity, known for his progressive values, is accused of sexual harassment by a young woman he supervises.

Burke gives the story, one all too familiar right now, an intriguing twist: She tells it from the point of view of the accused man's wife.

Before the story breaks, Angela Powell has what looks like a lovely life. She was working as a caterer on Long Island, where she grew up in a working-class family, when she met Jason Powell, an economist. He's smitten by her and loves her young son, Spencer, too. Before long Angela and Jason are married and living in Manhattan, and then he writes a book.

Equalonomics is a huge bestseller, so much so that they can afford a charming carriage house in Greenwich Village and a private school for Spencer. Jason starts his own popular podcast and consulting firm whose "trademark thing was how companies could maximize profits by making corporate decisions based on principles of equality." There's even talk of him running for mayor.

Then one day Rachel Sutton, a graduate student doing an internship at Jason's firm, accuses him of sexual harassment. She says that she entered his office to find him with his pants undone, and that when she told him she had become engaged he responded with something she interpreted as a proposition.

At first Jason is dismissive. He tells Angela that he was in his office bathroom, tucking in his shirt, and that his comment was just a casual question about whether she wanted to marry young. "That's how ridiculous these millennials are," Jason says. "It's considered sexual harassment even to ask someone about their personal life. But if she barges in my office and starts telling me about her engagement, I can't say anything without melting the special snowflake."

Angela wants to believe he's innocent. So does Spencer, to whom Jason has been a devoted dad. They have lots of support from Angela's best friend, Susanna, a TV journalist; Jason's friend and lawyer, Colin; and Angela's fiercely protective mother, Ginny.

Angela wants to believe it will all blow over, but then another woman accuses Jason. Kerry Lynch works for one of Jason's clients, and her charge is much more serious: She claims that Jason raped her.

One of the many twists Burke gives this story is that Angela herself has been the victim of a terrible crime, and she has worked mightily to make a new life where no one knows about it. Burke is the daughter of author James Lee Burke, and although their books are very different, they often share one recurring theme: The secrets of our past are never really behind us.

It's telling that in the book's prologue Angela says, "It had been twelve years since a police officer last asked me a direct question, but my first instinct was still to lie."

Most of The Wife is told in first person, from Angela's point of view. But there are also chapters that follow the investigation by a sexual crimes unit detective, Corinne Duncan (who has heard the cop-and-doughnut jokes a million times, thanks). A black woman who has made her way up the ranks in the NYPD, Duncan is more sensitive than many cops to gender issues, but she's a tough and determined detective as well.

She also has a hard-won understanding of the victims of sexual crimes. She knows that evaluating their testimony is complex, much more gray than black and white. "That was a truth that every sex offense investigator would admit if it weren't wholly unacceptable. You're not supposed to say that victims never tell the complete truth, because it sounds as if you're calling them liars. They're not liars. They're protecting themselves. They're preparing not to be believed."

Burke, a former prosecutor who is a professor in the law school at Hofstra University, brings authenticity to the legal intricacies of the plot. And she's skilled at keeping the surprises accelerating, right to the last line.

The Wife also offers insight into just why we find such stories so compelling:

"Admit it. When you hear about a missing kid, or a murdered woman, you scour the article for clues. Not clues about the perpetrator. No, we search for clues about what makes that woman or child different from the women and children we know and love. Mom was having an affair. Kid was using meth. We need an explanation, something to reassure us that the horrible things that happened to them could never happen to us."

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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