Elissa Wald’s ‘The Secret Lives of Married Women’ will spice up your Valentine’s Day

Elissa Wald's The Secret Lives of Married Women

Images: Titan Books

Get those scarves and belts out of your closets, ladies, because apparently we’ve been doin’ it all wrong. After years of magazine articles showing us how to be vixens in the bedroom, apparently now we’re supposed to be…slaves? Well, that may be an exaggeration, but if the popularity of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey and now, Elissa Wald’s The Secret Lives of Married Women, are any indication, apparently women have an untapped desire to explore submissive roles with their partners.

The Plot

The Secret Lives of Married Women relates the stories of two sisters as told through their sexual fantasies and hidden secrets. Lilly is a sexually repressed attorney working on one of the toughest cases of her career, while her sister, Leda, is a suburban homemaker who fears she’s being stalked by a contractor working on her house. He also knows that she’s concealing part of her past from her husband. As dark secrets assail the bedrock of their relationships, to what lengths will their spouses go to save their marriages?

The Style

This book is clearly riding the wave of popularity in erotic, S&M-based fiction. Is it Fifty Shades of Grey? Probably not; I haven’t read E.L. James’ best-selling novel, but I’ll say that the sex scenes in this book are minimal. The Secret Lives of Woman is a pulp fiction novel, more psychologically penetrating than salacious.

That said, just because I don’t get worked up over being tied up, it doesn’t mean that someone else might not get a thrill out of this book. Wald is also author of other S&M-based erotic fiction, such as Meeting the Master, which may also be appealing to readers.

The Characters

Of the twin sisters, Leda was the most interesting, although ultimately unsatisfying. The tense story did nothing to distract me from the idea that she was running away from a failed acting career simply to inhabit another role: that of a suburban homemaker. As roles go, it never seemed to fit her and she seemed miscast. Likewise, I chafed at the unrealistic constraints on her relationship with her husband. Would she really have married someone she understood so poorly?

Lilly, on the other hand, felt one-dimensional. She was the stereotypical hard-driving New York attorney, painted derisively by Wald for her disapproval of pornography and anything outside the lines of “conventional” sexual mores.

Although Leda and Lilly are the principal characters of the book, the perspectives of supporting characters color our impressions of their lives. In Leda’s story, Leda finds her own past reflected in the character of Rae, a dramatic foil who pursues the same unhealthy, self-destructive relationships that she has left behind. Meanwhile, Lilly awakens to new sexual possibilities as she gets to know Nan, her client’s assistant and the keystone to her story arc. Nan’s childhood scars have led her to a life of willing servitude, but she ultimately displays her power as the master over Lilly’s grueling trial.

The Themes

The cover and title of this book do it a disservice, making it tempting to dismiss this as a puff piece of scarves, belts, and heaving bosoms. Instead, Wald aims instead to uncover the desires hidden in the minds of her characters, more than reveal the erotic acts themselves. Through the eyes of Leda, Lilly, and Nan, we realize that “bed games” are really “head games.”

Early on, we learn that Leda has a libertine past that she has concealed from her husband. Her efforts to conceal her actions underscore her failure to understand the man she married. When a stalker—who knows her past—threatens her, the resulting confrontation between the two men uncovers a new side of her husband—and herself.

Her twin sister, Lilly, discovers evidence of her sister’s youthful exploits when she uncovers that her husband has kept his own secrets. The resulting confrontation threatens her relationship with the two people she loves most. When Lilly learns that a professional submissive is the key witness in an upcoming trial, she explores the world of S&M clubs and discovers that the hard aggression she displays as an attorney may be causing her harm in the bedroom.

When I sat down to write this review, I stumbled on an NPR article discussing the 40th anniversary of the release of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, a groundbreaking novel that shaped popular perception of women’s sexuality.  In the article, Jong describes how early feminist erotic works were all about women escaping submissive, dependent, housewife- centered roles. But in works like Fifty Shades of Grey and The Secret Lives of Married Women, the women who gained independence from domestic roles are now exploring submissiveness in a sexual context. While third-wave feminism views this as empowering, Jong questions this trend. She says:

If you look at Fifty Shades of Gray, it’s a very, very retrograde book, because if you’re tied up and aroused, what are you really doing? You’re giving up all responsibility for your sexuality. So, you cannot be a bad girl, because you’re tied up. … You can be a victim.”

Wald touches this idea of victimization through the character of Nan. Nan is a former submissive in a New York S&M club who clearly displays a deep psychological and sexual need to be dominated. As we learn more about her childhood in a Catholic convent, we can clearly see a warping of the idea of religious submission to the will of God extending into her need to submit to all men. Although it’s apparent that she needs therapy to address some of her views, her unexpected twist of testimony during Lilly’s trial displays a flash of the power and control she is able to wield, even as a submissive. This underscores the message that even as women assume pliant, demure roles in the bedroom, they have not ceded control of their power and rights in other arenas.

The Final Word

While this book wasn’t quite the salacious page-turner I expected it to be, I did enjoy getting into the heads of these different women and trying to understand their sexual perspectives. If you’re tired of standard bodice-rippers and looking to dip your toe into the water of darker amorous encounters, this book is worth exploring. Who knows? You may find a new use for the belts lurking in the back of your closet….

 Reviewer’s Note:  This review is from my selection of unpublished reviews originally intended for publication on Mind of the Geek Media, LLC. As Mind Of The Geek reboots from a brief restructuring hiatus, I will be periodically sharing these previously unpublished reviews on these sites.