When Alice Hale leaves a career to become a writer and follows her husband to the New York suburbs, she is unaccustomed to filling her days alone in a big, empty house. But when she finds a vintage cookbook buried in the basement, she becomes captivated by its previous owner: 1950s housewife Nellie Murdoch. As Alice cooks her way through the past, she realizes that within the pages Nellie left clues about her life.
Soon Alice learns that while a Baked Alaska may seem harmless, Nellie’s secrets may have been anything but. When Alice uncovers a more sinister, even dangerous, side to Nellie’s marriage, and has become increasingly dissatisfied with her own relationship, she begins to take control of her life and protect herself with a few secrets of her own.
You seem to forget that I am married, and the one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties. —Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) It was late in both day and season for planting, but she had no choice in the matter. Her husband hadn’t understood the urgency, having never nurtured a garden. Nor did he hold an appreciation for its bounty, and as a result had been gently irritable with her that morning. Wishing she would focus on more important tasks instead, of which there were many, as they’d moved in only the week before. It was true much of the garden could wait—little happened during these later months, as bulbs rested dormant, waiting for the rain and warmth of spring. But this particular plant, with its bell‑shaped flowers plentiful, would not be so patient. Besides, it was a gift and came with specific instructions, so there was no alternative but to get it into the ground. Today. She felt most like herself when she was mucking about in the dirt, singing to and coaxing the buds and leaves. That had been the main reason she loved the house when she first saw it. The garden beds were already prepped, though sparse, and she could envision how they could be transformed into something magnificent. The house itself had felt large and impersonal— especially its many rooms, considering it was only the two of them. However, they were newlyweds still. Plenty of time to make the house a home, to fill it with children and warmth. Humming a favorite tune, she slid on her gardening gloves as she crouched and, with the trowel, dug out a large circle of earth. Into the hole went the plant, which she held carefully with her gloved fingers so as not to crush the amethyst‑colored blossoms. She was comforted as she patted the soil around its roots, the stalk standing nice and straight, the flowers already brightening up the garden. There was plenty of work still ahead, but she lay down on the soft grass, her hands resting like a pillow under her head, and watched the clouds dance in the blue sky above. Excited and ready for all that was to come.
Men like a clean house, but fussing about all the time, upsetting the house in order to keep it clean, will drive a man from the house elsewhere. —William J. Robinson, Married Life and Happiness (1922) Alice MAY 5, 2018 When Alice Hale first saw the house—impressive in size though dilapidated and dreary from neglect—she couldn’t have known what it had in store for her. Her first thought was how gargantuan it seemed. The Hales lived in a teeny one-bedroom in Murray Hill, which required shuffling sideways to get past the bed and featured a bathroom door that grazed your kneecaps when you sat on the toilet. By comparison this house was a sizable rectangle of symmetrical brick with shuttered windows on either side of a red door nestled into a stone archway, the door’s paint peeling like skin after a bad sunburn. Reluctance filled Alice as she imagined walking through the door: Welcome to Greenville, Nate and Alice Hale, she could almost hear the house whisper through the mouthlike mail slot, in a not-at-all-welcoming tone. This is a place where young urban professionals come to die. The suburb was perfectly lovely, but it wasn’t Manhattan. A town a few minutes’ drive from the better-known and more exclusive Scarsdale, Greenville was less than an hour’s train ride from the city and yet was an entirely different world. Wide lawns. Picket fences, many of them predictably white. Sidewalks clean enough to eat off of. No sounds of traffic, which made Alice uneasy. Her left eye twitched, likely the result of having barely slept the night before. She had paced their shoebox‑size apartment in Murray Hill in the dark, overwhelmed by the sense that this—the house, Greenville, all of it—would be a terrible mistake. But things always feel dire in the middle of the night, and by morning her insomnia and worries seemed silly. This was the first house they had seen, and no one ever bought the first house. Nate took her hand, leading her along the sidewalk to look at the house from the side. She squeezed his fingers, followed his gaze as they walked. “It’s nice, right?” he said, and she smiled, hoping the twitching eye wasn’t obvious. Taking in the home’s facade—the deep cracks in the cement walkway, the graying picket fence that leaned askew—Alice realized why the house was priced the way it was, though still pushing their budget. Especially now that they were living on one paycheck, which had been Alice’s doing and still made her stomach ache with guilt when she thought about it. The house was desperately in need of work. A lot of work. And they hadn’t even gone inside yet. She sighed, pressing her fingertips to her eyelid. This is fine, she thought. It’s going to be fine. “It’s a lot of money,” she said. “Are you sure we can afford it?” She had grown up with nothing extra and sometimes not even the basics; the idea of a mortgage terrified her. “We can. I promise,” Nate replied. He was a numbers guy, and good with money, but she remained hesitant. “It has really good bones,” he added, and Alice glanced at him, wondering how they were seeing things so differently. “Classic, too. Don’t you love how solid it looks?” Solid. That was what one got for marrying an actuary. “Think the Realtor gave us the right address?” If Alice tilted her head just so, it looked as though the house was leaning to the right. Maybe they were in the wrong neighborhood and this home’s in-much-better-shape cousin existed elsewhere. Oh, she said Greenwich, not Greenville, Nate might say as he reread the email from their Realtor. Alice frowned at the eyesore of a front lawn, the lackluster and overgrown grass, wondering what a lawn mower cost. But while everything else appeared unkempt, the flowers that lined the fence—rich pink blooms that looked like they were made from layers of delicate tissue paper—were gorgeous and plentiful, as though they had been tended to only that morning. She tucked her fingers under one of the flowers and leaned in, its perfume intoxicating. “One seventy‑three.” Nate looked up from his phone and at the tarnished brass house number. “Yup, this is it.” “A colonial revival,” their Realtor, Beverly Dixon, had said while Nate and Alice listened in on speakerphone the evening before. “Built in the forties, so it has a few quirks, but with gorgeous detail. Wait until you see the stone archway and the classic layout. This one won’t last long, I’m telling you, especially at this price.” Nate had looked excited as Beverly went on. Alice knew he felt stifled inside their small apartment with its too-few windows and absence of green space and the shockingly steep rent. Nate had wanted to move out of the city for as long as she’d known him. He wanted a yard to throw a ball around in with his children, the way he had with his dad. To have songbirds and summer cicadas wake him each morning rather than delivery trucks. A fixer‑upper he could put his stamp on. Having grown up in a Connecticut suburb with still-married parents—one of which was a stay-at-home mother—and two siblings as accomplished as he was, Nate’s vision of family life was naively rosy. Alice loved their perfectly cozy apartment, with a landlord who handled leaky faucets and fresh coats of paint and a new refrigerator when theirs conked out last spring. She wanted to stay living ten blocks from her best friend, Bronwyn Murphy, whose place Alice escaped to when she needed a break from living in a shoebox with a man. Nate was, to be fair, tidier and more concerned with everything having a place, and there being a place for everything, than Alice was, but he still had minor shortcomings. Drinking juice straight out of the carton. Using her insanely expensive gold‑plated tweezers for pulling out nose hairs. Expecting life would give him whatever he wanted simply because he asked for it. Alice reminded herself she had promised Nate she’d be open-minded, and she wanted to get better at keeping her promises. Not to mention the fact that if they did end up moving to Greenville, Alice had no one to blame but herself. A few minutes before their agreed meeting time, a Lexus purred up to the curb, and out jumped Beverly Dixon. After grabbing her purse and a folder from the passenger seat, she gently nudged the door shut in a way that told Alice this car was brand-new. Beverly locked the door with her key fob— twice—and Alice looked around, seeing no one nearby except for a woman pushing a stroller across the street and an elderly gentleman pruning a bush a few doors down. Alice thought back to Beverly’s earlier comment about the neighborhood. “Crime is non‑existent. You’ll be able to leave your doors unlocked if you want!” Beverly closed the gap between them on three-inch heels, her body balloon-round inside the beige skirt and matching jacket. Her smile was wide and warm, her hand extended long before she reached them, heavy gold bracelets jangling. As she smiled at the couple, Alice noticed a smear of pink lipstick on one of Beverly’s front teeth. “Alice. Nate.” Beverly pumped their hands, bracelets clinking like wind chimes. “Hope you haven’t been waiting long?” Nate assured her they hadn’t; Alice smiled and stared at Beverly’s tooth. “A real gem.” Beverly was out of breath, a slight wheeze accompanying her words. “Shall we head inside?” “Let’s do it,” Nate said, grabbing Alice’s hand again. She allowed herself to be pulled toward the house even though all she wanted was to drive back to the city and slip into her yoga pants and hide in their cramped apartment. Maybe order takeout, laugh about their temporary insanity at considering a move to the suburbs. Heading up the front walkway, Beverly pointed out a few details (“gorgeous stone on that archway… you won’t find anything like that anymore… original leaded glass…”), and Alice saw movement out of the corner of her eye. A flutter of curtain from the top left window, as though someone was pushing it to the side. She shielded her eyes with the hand Nate wasn’t holding and looked at the window, but whatever had moved was now still. Maybe she’d imagined it. Probably—she was more exhausted than someone who wasn’t working should be. “Like I said on the phone last night, the house was built in the 1940s. Now, I know things are a little rough around the edges out here, but nothing a lawn service can’t handle. Aren’t those peonies stunning? The previous owner had a real green thumb, I hear. What I wouldn’t do to have flowers like that in my front yard.” A lawn service. Good grief. They were officially going to become one of those couples. The type who desperately wanted plush suburban grass for their kids to play on, and for their golden-doodle to shit on, but couldn’t actually take care of it. As they approached the front door Alice’s stomach clenched. She’d had nothing to eat aside from coffee and a handful of stale cereal, but that wasn’t why she felt ill. This house, and everything it signified—not the least of which was leaving Manhattan—was making her nauseated. Bile coated the back of her throat as Beverly and Nate chattered on about the “bones” of the house and its unique features, including the original doorbell, which still worked. Nate, oblivious to Alice’s disquiet, pressed the bell and laughed delightedly as the tinny chimes echoed behind the red door.
Thank you, Karma Brown and Legend Press
About the author
Karma is the bestselling author of four novels and is a National Magazine Award winning journalist. Karma lives just outside Toronto, Canada with her husband, daughter, and a labradoodle named Fred.