*My thanks to the publisher for the advance copy of this book via NetGalley*
I have been hearing a lot about this book and was intrigued by its premise. Marriage is always a great topic for a thriller - particularly a newly married couple. Cults, secret societies and controlling peer groups are also perfect topics for thrillers and always fascinating to read about so to find a book that combines both is surely a recipe for a page turning read.
Meet Alice and Jake, a picture perfect couple. Alice has put her previous life as a singer in a rock band behind her and is now a successful lawyer. Jake is therapist. They have a great future ahead of them and seem very happy together.
On a whim, Alice invites one of her prominent clients to the wedding and he presents them with an unusual gift - a gift which once explained to them, results in them joining a mysterious, secret and exclusive group known only as The Pact. Once they join, they are guaranteed many years of harmonious marriage and that they will never to divorce. What have they got to lose? It just sounds like a bit of a game and why would they ever end up divorcing anyway - they are soul mates!
As the rules of the pact are revealed they seem straightforward enough. Always answer the phone when your spouse calls, exchange thoughtful gifts, plan a short trip away four times a year - sure, wouldn't any couple be doing this anyway? And as well as being part of The Pact, which they must not mention to anyone, they are invited to lots of exclusive parties and start enjoying a growing social life and social circle.
But then the rules seem to become more complicated, more inflexible, harder to follow and those leading The Pact become more controlling, less forgiving and more threatening in their requests. Suddenly things appear more sinister.
And the worst thing about The Pact? There's no way out.
Fidelity to the Spouse. Loyalty to the Pact. Till death do us part.
The story is narrated by Jake who appears likeable, genuine, caring and straightforward enough. He appears to have Alice's best interests at heart. She is more vulnerable with some emotional baggage and he is the one who wants the commitment and stability offered through marriage so from the outset there is a slight imbalance or inequality between the couple. Despite this, Alice is not weak or vulnerable, she is a successful lawyer who is dedicated and hardworking. Jake is a therapist and counsels couples through their own marital problems so we consider him to be emotionally intelligent, thoughtful, generous and empathetic. But he does mention that he 'wanted Alice', that marriage would 'ensure he didn't lose her'. At first these seem almost throwaway comments but the words do lodge themselves there and begin to fester. For the more alert, this seed of suspicion is sown.
But how bad can it get?
Bad. When Alice and Jake read the manual that they are presented with, they don't really take it seriously or pay attention to the pages and pages of listed articles. But they don't miss the part that says there are punishments for 'misdemeanours' and 'felonies'. You can almost feel the nervous laughter as they wonder whether The Pact really takes itself so seriously that it has its own justice system. As Alice and Jack begin to realise that they are in something way over their heads that they don't quite understand, the reader gets that sense of a sinking in your stomach and a chill creeping through your skin. Just what have they got themselves into and what might it mean for their marriage?
The novel quickly accelerates and becomes a dark and twisted thriller where Alice and Jake are placed in danger; trapped by the members of the Pact, unable to speak freely with anyone to get help and with their every move being watched, judged and called into explanation. Things start to take an unpleasant turn. Alice is punished for putting work above her marriage - in a way that is shocking and severe. Jake's guilt ridden internal thoughts that the 'marriage was his idea' but she has sacrificed much more begin to become louder and the reader is unsettled by the change in Alice as a result of punishment and also of the growing imbalance between them. While Alice is stoic in her acceptance of her punishment, Jake takes it upon himself to try and discover the truth behind the pact and what has happened to other couples that have gone before them. Even if this means risking everything.
Jake's job as a therapist is a helpful device and the author uses it to prompt conversations about cults, marriage and other observations that challenge our ideas about society. He can site examples from couples he's counselled and he can also debate topics about relationships. There are some pertinent questions included in the pages of this novel yet cleverly it never becomes moralistic or too reflective or analytical about what makes a good marriage. The writer knows this is a dark, psychologically thrilling novel and therefore uses these observations and interviews from Jack's life effectively and with good timing.
This novel is like a cross between The Handmaid's Tale and The Adjustment Bureau. I enjoyed the first half which was full of tension and suspense and very much in the style of a thriller. I enjoyed the middle bits which felt a little more futuristic and Orwellian, and then at the end I enjoyed the revelations, self realisation and acceptance of the true motives of each character as they complete their emotional journey and the story reaches its denouement.
It's a bold novel that will impress readers and it would certainly work really well in a book group as there is so much to unpack and explore. Alice and Jake are likeable, flawed but authentic characters, in which readers will recognise parts of themselves. The Marriage Pact is intriguing, compelling and shines a new light on how to explore issues of control, jealousy, expectation and possessiveness within the framework of a contemporary thriller.
The Marriage Pact is published by Michael Joseph on the 14th December 2017.