Book Review: “The Whispers” by Ashley Audrain
When I was in my 20s, I briefly dated a woman named Whitney who had a five-year-old son. At some point in this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it relationship, we had a conversation predicated on the idea of who would Whitney rescue if me and her son were drowning. She said she would go after her son, no question, and leave me to fend for myself. Now, I’m not sure how this conversation came about, but I do remember being gravely hurt by her comments. However, age has granted me the wisdom to see from her point of view. Of course, she should go after her son first. After all, he spent nine months in her womb and she fashioned him from her loins, not to mention all the time that she spent looking after him and nursing him as he grew from being an infant to a toddler to a kindergartener. What does this anecdote have to do with Ashley Audrain’s new book, The Whispers? Well, its antagonist is named Whitney and she appears to be the exact opposite of the woman I had dated. Given a choice to save her offspring, this career woman will choose to let them perish. Or will she?
This novel — which is set in the near future to cover the fact that its characters need to act socially outside of the confines of the recent pandemic — starts with a children’s birthday party on a September afternoon. Everyone in the neighbourhood has been invited to the gig at Whitney and Jacob Loverly’s backyard (and that surname is seemingly used ironically because there’s not a lot of love to be had here if that’s not giving too much away). The party is for one of her children (we don’t know if it’s for the three-year-old twins she has or her 10-year-old son Xavier). Her eldest son is something of a difficult child — he is doing poorly in school, is being bullied, and has behavioural issues. Xavier acts up at the party and this leads Whitney to berate her son, and even though it’s behind closed doors inside, the guests are embarrassed for them. Flash forward nine months later, and Xavier is in the hospital in a coma suffering from a fall from his bedroom window. The question, to paraphrase Richard and Linda Thompson, is did he jump (after being called names at school by his best friend), or was he pushed (by Whitney in her usual flash of anger)? Whitney’s neighbours in the suburban neighbourhood spend the next three days trying to piece together what happened, including Rebecca, the nurse tending Xavier who has also been trying and failing to conceive with her husband Ben, and Blair, whose husband is seemingly having an affair with Whitney. Also in the mix is an elderly neighbour named Mara, who seethes at her husband Albert for his role in mistreating their autistic-like son, Marcus, who died as a teenager during the 1970s.
The Whispers is a challenging book — but this has nothing to do with vocabulary or the language used. It’s because, if you couldn’t already figure this out, the characters are not very likable. The beginning of the book is a bit of a trod, and it isn’t until halfway through the read that Audrain begins to tighten the screws and the tension begins to mount, turning a book that starts as a domestic crisis type book into an outright thriller that you can’t put down. There’s a sense of kitchen sink realism to this work — the type of book that features characters who could very well have doppelgangers in real life. And it’s apt that I’m publishing this review around Mother’s Day 2023 (even if the book won’t be released for another few weeks yet) because this is a novel about mothers and the bond that they have with their children — sometimes tenuously in the case of Whitney, as she’s anything but the selfless mom who will do anything for her kids. Instead, she wants it all — the adoring husband, the high-powered executive career, the magnificent house in the ‘burbs. And the thing with Whitney is that she will stop at nothing to get what she wants, no matter who stands in her way. Even, perhaps, if it turns out that that person might be her very own son. Maybe.
If you’re going to read The Whispers, this is a book that is going to require some level of patience on the part of the reader. I know this can come across as being a cliché in my reviews, but I’ll say it again as it pertains to this book: if you stick with it, it will yield rewards. The ending is quite just and devastating in its way, and there’s a bit of a plot twist (or two) that readers probably won’t see coming. Still, The Whispers can prove to be demanding, as most of the dialogue is internal — there aren’t a lot of spoken bits in this book. However, once the tension starts to ratchet up, this turns out to be a highly superlative work of psychological fiction from the point of view of women. As a result, this book winds up being about what it’s like to be a woman in modern society and the demands that motherhood — or, at least, the desire to be a mother in Rebecca’s case — places on families, sometimes causing them to shatter. In any event, this is a book that some women may find to be self-evident in terms of what it has to say. However, The Whispers is a book that we need, even if it sometimes feels that it might state the obvious for some people. At the end of the day, this is a tightly wound book that will keep you on your toes guessing to the very end. It’s by no means perfection, and it does take some time to warm up to but stick with this one and rescue it from your To Be Read pile. Think for yourself, and don’t want around for me thrashing in the water to pronounce my judgment. This book is younger than me, after all, and needs your attention first.
Ashley Audrain’s The Whispers will be published by Viking on June 6, 2023.
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