Who was she, anyway? Probe beneath the glittering surface of such a person and see how easy it is for an outsider to get it wrong, to forget that no one is as perfect or happy or fulfilled as we imagine in our jealous fantasies.
We hear that Nancy feels hollow and useless, flattened by malaise; that she envies her friends for their “thicker and fuller” lives; that her husband discounts her distress; that a perfect storm of unhappy emptiness has made her ripe for the giddy euphoria of an affair that does little but feed her ego.
Now she is rived with guilt, the initial headiness of the relationship ceding to the realization that her lover is, basically, a controlling jerk. “Her head was filled with terrible thoughts that made her want to scream into a darkened corner,” Hall writes. “The sharpness of her betrayal wedged itself between her ribs like an arrow, its poison spreading through her blood.”
The book creeps on you slowly, like a fog, until you find yourself enveloped in this tangled skein of relationships, eager to see how all this is going to play out, who is going to betray whom and in what way. Sometimes you feel annoyed at the women for being so baroquely hard on themselves, just as Robert feels annoyed at what he perceives to be Nancy’s whining about her amorphous unhappiness. “You can be many things in this life, but a dissatisfied woman is not one of them,” Nancy thinks.
The final section of the book is reserved for Mary, the faded friend. Her surrender to wifehood and motherhood has turned her into what appears at first to be the least interesting person in the original trio of friends, particularly now that her ghastly husband has fallen prey to some sort of irritating illness that requires her constant attention. But she’s not boring at all. Everyone has underestimated the depths of her feelings and the lengths she is willing to go.
“Imperfect Women” is not a conventional detective story, but an investigation into character and motivation. The real mysteries concern love, friendship, obligation, the disappointments that come with the passage of time and the mysteries of other people’s hearts — as well as your own.
“It will always be difficult for a man to understand what women mean to each other,” Nancy says at one point. “None of them,” she observes, thinking about herself and her friends, “had really become what they imagined for themselves when they used to sit up into early mornings discussing what they would do with their lives.”
Nancy’s death, as shocking and unfortunate as it is, turns out to be a precursor to the real story here, a long tease for the twist Hall saves for the end of this surprising book. After all that has happened, it feels like poetic justice.