“For as long as I could remember, I’d had a terror of my own heart.”
Lucy and Jake are a seemingly average couple living in a small English university town and raising their young sons. Then, Lucy receives a call from a man telling her Jake has been having an affair with his wife. The couple decides to work through the infidelity by settling the score: Lucy can hurt Jake three times. What unfolds is a haunting tale that examines contemporary marriage while questioning the motives that fuel revenge.
The Harpy. By Megan Hunter. Grove Atlantic. 2020. Hardcover.
How did I get the book?
As a Grove Atlantic hardcore stan, this is one of the titles I was most excited about when working for the company. I also completely agree with the LitHub team that it’s among the most gorgeous covers released this November…possibly all year.
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What did I think?
Lucy’s reckoning with Jake’s affair comes as she investigates the intimacies of their marriage, how she grew used to his returning home late and yet still hoped for the best, how after the truth is out Jake still feigns normalcy in front of their children. In a way, Lucy appreciates how they have silently decided to keep their family—“I couldn't help but want it,” she says, “a mirage of safety, the pretence that four walls could keep your life, could hold you present on the earth”—and yet she also doubts the sustainability of their current reality, “a lopsided version of mindfulness: no future, infinite present but also infinite past, filled with lies, half-truths, a dozen versions of the same story,” how they could “spend a lifetime never quite looking each other in the face.” As Lucy alternates between putting her feet in Jake’s lap to show forgiveness and pressing on his hands to cause him pain, she also criticizes the way marriage has changed them, making them “borderless” and too familiar with one another. “I would long for a misunderstanding, to have no idea what he meant,” she admits.
Ironically, Lucy seems misunderstood by those around her thanks to her lack of interest in playing pleasantry word games, in her need to know everything and work out the truth. “I had tried being candid before, at book groups and PTA socials, and it never ended well,” Lucy says. “Once, drunk on prosecco and inadequately fed on sushi, I'd asked what contraception people used. The silence was acute.” This misfit characterization goes beyond quirkiness and leads to a void within Lucy, one that fills with “a bodyful of bile…barely containable within one person, one skin” after learning of Jake’s affair. Lucy wishes desperately to vocalize this feeling and rid herself of it but finds words dry in her mouth. At one point she finally whispers curses to herself, noting, “I didn't know who I was talking to but it felt good in my mouth anyway, a small wet kiss.” Eventually, Lucy does bring herself to admit, “I tried my fucking best,” a moment that allows her to surpass simply “asking something I knew the answer to, just to hear the words coming out of my mouth, to make a sound” and get closer to the truth.
Lucy’s struggle to find her voice connects to a larger theme of womanhood that Hunter explores, particularly the idea that women lose themselves after becoming mothers. Lucy bristles against this but also acknowledges that “Marriage and motherhood are like death…No one comes back unchanged,” noticing how she and other women in her community have become what she calls “the cow-self” living in “parentworld,” a place where nothing happens, where women with multiple degrees are now responsible for school runs and keeping track of their husbands’ business travel, where they refer to themselves with third-person pronouns that dissolve their personal ambitions. “Nobody thinks they will become that woman until it happens,” Lucy says, disillusioned by the narrative that falling in love would be her most paramount life experience. “At thirty, I presumed my life to be over, to have been taken over by the qualities that were always promised to arrive one day: pain, work, exhaustion…The woman who married Jake, who became a wife and mother, who would never be a real person again.” The more that Lucy remembers her own mother (how her mother’s own domestic efforts being met with her father’s infidelity mirrors Lucy’s life, helping her understand her mother’s disappointment throughout her childhood, the kind that “could power a whole country”), the more she rejects the label: “I was no mother,” Lucy decides. “I was a silly girl who had slipped and ended up in this kind of life.”
🌟 4/5 — Great
I fell completely in love with Hunter’s language, especially her acute descriptions: “the virgin blue of his notification light in the darkness”; “my skincare routine, the adult version of childhood prayers”; “Daffodils...the droop of their heads, like grumpy children dressed by their mothers.” I laughed when Lucy notes she and Jake “had taught the children to say please, but had not taught them to come into the kitchen and pour water from a plastic jug set at a low height,” just as I ached when she notices her pain “as you would notice that a book has fallen from a shelf: impartially, at a distance.” This is particularly striking when concerning Vanessa, Jake’s colleague and affair partner. “I knew what she looked like,” Lucy says, remembering having met the woman at their holiday party, how she was the type to “notice the teetering sub-Ikea furniture, guess that the only good pieces…were passed on by relatives who no longer needed them,” but then more intimately, Lucy notes, “I even knew what [Vanessa] smelled like; I had smelled it on Jake a few times, I realized now. Shower gel, laundry detergent. Something else, from deep inside her.” Dark and sore, still, I had to read on.
Where the novel can struggle is in its handling of Lucy’s duel understanding of herself, illustrated in the use of italicized vignettes exploring her girlhood fascination with the novel’s namesake, the harpy: a mythological half-woman, half-bird of prey. “The harpy has never had children, it seems. Has never bought or rented a house, chosen cushion covers or selected a carpet from a choice of thousands…A hive of unknown lives.” Although this clearly connects with Lucy questioning what she has actually managed to do and wondering “if people would believe me if I said I have never been a violent person,” the eventual merging of the two images that occurs felt slightly abrupt and heavy-handed, almost unnecessary.
Beyond the book.
This autumn, Hunter spoke with Ben Moorhouse as part of the Tring Book Festival in the UK remotely, as all festivals must be now. Also, if The Harpy intrigues you in the slightest I would also direct you toward Hunter’s debut The End We Start From, which is an equally lyrical and dystopian look at modern motherhood with the additional exploration of climate change. It will keep you satisfied as Hunter works on her third novel.
See you again soon!