Monotony, mistresses, murder: Books about marriages gone awry to read as your “Gone Girl” hair-of-the-dog

Can’t sleep because you’re still having nightmares about Gone Girl? Gillian Flynn is not the only writer whose tales of marital discord can stab you between the ribs. And what better time than so close to Valentine’s Day to remind yourself that love can be worse than a slasher film? So use your sleeplessness to devour one of these literary beauties, if you’re so bold.

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

“Nothing says hell has to be fire.”

I read this one on my honeymoon, because I’m an ironic precious snowflake with a flair for the morbid. (“That’s not what honeymoons are for, Lizzie!” someone wrote on my Facebook status update requesting book recommendations). There’s a photo of me laying on a balcony hammock in overcast Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, peering sinisterly over the book.

It’s about a mail-order bride who intends to gradually poison her new husband in rural Wisconsin in the early 1900s and inherit his money. But there’s much more to it than that.

Can a marriage born of a twisty revenge plot and flavored with arsenic turn into a contented partnership? Can love win out in such darkness? “Such things happened,” Robert Goolrick’s narrator might say, his recurring refrain for the gruesome insanity that was apparently rampant in that time and setting. It’s a depraved novel of matters of the heart when the hearts are stained black.

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

“They are not brave, the days when we are twenty-one. They are full of little cowardices, little fears without foundation, and one is so easily bruised, so swiftly wounded, one falls to the first barbed word.”

My ninth-grade English teacher Mrs. Corey was desperate for me to read this. Thirteen years later, after letting it collect dust on my to-read shelf, I committed to Daphne du Maurier’s novel. If you’ve ever looked up your man’s ex on Facebook to discover she’s way prettier than you, performs life-saving surgeries for children pro bono and makes a mean chocolate croissant, do not walk, do not collect $200, run to your nearest purveyor of books or e-reading device.

The unnamed narrator of Rebecca meets the dashing Maxim de Winter, wealthy, mysterious and recently a widower, abroad while they’re staying at the same hotel, he alone, she as the paid companion of an intolerable old woman. She falls unabashedly in love with him. When her employer says they’re departing for another country, Maxim will have none of it. “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.”

And so he sweeps her away to Manderley, his sprawling estate nestled between woods and beaches, flanked by roses and azaleas and permeated with the presence of the inescapable first wife, Rebecca. Beautiful, beloved, drowned Rebecca, whose memory morphs from an awkward topic for the narrator to a terrifying, consuming obsession. The shy, uncertain second Mrs. de Winter never feels quite bright enough to cast out Rebecca’s shadow, and questions the validity of her marriage. The lush narration descends into the pits of jealousy and despair. But there’s something even more sinister going on in Manderley than the evil housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, who in a scene that haunts my dreams drags the second Mrs. through Rebecca’s bedroom, making her stroke Rebecca’s unwashed nightgown and wondering aloud whether Rebecca’s ghost watches her and Maxim.

You’ve got to get about two-thirds into the novel for the really bonkers revelations, but from there it's like a freight train, and trust me, it’s worth it.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

“There is still such crookedness in my heart. I had thought loving two people so much would straighten it.”

Depending on your perspective, this is either the lightest or darkest of the bunch because it’s the most realistic. No shocking twists, no murder plots, no hauntings. And yet this tiny little book — Bustle told me I could read it in one sitting, and I did, before lunch — might make you look at your shiny engagement ring and say, “Yeah, maybe not.”

Instead of a conventional storytelling format, this is more a collection of highly quotable observations — sardonic, heart-wrenching, lovely, bizarre, hilarious — that weave in the story of an idyllic marriage that goes, as they are wont to do, tragically wrong. They’re a cool, young Brooklyn couple with an adorable little girl. She’s a writer. He’s a musician. They get bedbugs. Other stuff happens. Tragedies and indiscretions, mundane things, delightful things.

The wit and candor of the narrator branded me so deeply that I think my lungs are burned. If you want a naked and brilliant analysis of marriage that’s deeply relatable regardless of your marital or parental state, take 2.5 hours of your day to devour this gem. You'll highlight every other sentence.


  1. Haha, one of my bridesmaids showed up the day before my wedding with a bag of sci-fi, YA, and fantasy advance reader copies ("Here's your honeymoon reading!") because she understood the bride and groom so well. :) Can I add one more to the list? I'm pretty sure that The Girl On the Train is going to be the Gone Girl of 2015. I read it last Thursday. In one day. Because I COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN. Have you read it yet?

  2. I have not read it, but I am so intrigued by the premise! I make up stories in my head about strangers all the time, and it sounds like it's got creepy "Rear Window" overtones.

    Your bridesmaid (and you) are after my heart!