Tully, Rachel and Heather provide the narratives for the story, each providing a unique perspective about themselves, the family and Stephen. There’s a fourth narrator who I won’t name because that’s revealed later in the story. Each of the daughters has fond recollections of their childhood but as they consider the possibility that their father might have harmed their mother, those memories take on other dimensions. But it’s Heather’s experience that provides the most insight into Stephen. Nothing about this man is transparent so I found myself paying attention to the subtle clues.
Each of the sisters has issues I believed stemmed from traumas, real or imagined, experienced as part of their upbringing. The idyllic childhoods they first described lose a bit of shine as they reconsider certain events in a new context. All of this to say that these smart and talented women still weren’t always trusting their memories and had doubts about their judgments. That includes Heather who was experiencing it all in real time. They all felt like unreliable narrators at times but I refused to fall into that trap. As secrets emerged, I became more confident in them, even if they were unwilling to own that. I listened to the book and if ever a story screamed for multiple narrators, this was one. Each delivered great performances and it was easy to distinguish the characters. I loved how they interpreted these women, making a clever story even more complex. Some may have found the ending ambiguous but it couldn’t have been clearer to me. This is a modern day version of Gaslight and I found it exceptional.
ONE YEAR EARLIER …
The moment she laid eyes on Heather Wisher, Tully knew this woman was going to destroy their lives. Tully was sitting in the restaurant, fiddling with the salt and pepper shakers, when Heather walked in, half a pace behind Dad. She looked exactly like Tully had pictured her: doe-eyed, soft-featured, chock-full of cunning. She was Rebecca De Mornay in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. A viper poised to strike.
Game face on, Tully told herself as she rose to her feet. That’s what Dad had always said to her. Game face on, Tully-girl. Smile, be courteous, keep it together. Don’t let them see any chinks in the ol’ armor. Fall apart later, when you get home. Tully was already looking forward to falling apart. She had it all planned. She was going to lock herself in the bathroom, where she would take a long, hot shower and cry until she slid down the wall, racked with those deep, guttural sobs that you saw in the movies. The catharsis of a shower cry could not be overstated for a woman in her thirties. Recently, Tully had taken to booking them into her schedule ahead of time—to get out in front of them, as it were. It was a form of self-care, really. Like personal training. And Botox.
“Natalie,” Dad said, when he was close enough. He smelled the same as always: Omo laundry detergent and a hint of toothpaste. No aftershave, no fancy deodorants. Dad had always been old-school in this regard. At least the new woman hadn’t changed that about him. Yet. “This,” he said, glancing back over his shoulder, “is Heather.”
Heather smiled carefully. Up until that moment, Tully hadn’t known it was possible to smile carefully, but there it was: the perfect smile for someone in her position. It reminded Tully of the smile you flashed when you bumped into someone you hadn’t seen for a while at a funeral. Rob—it’s fantastic to see you … and Beverly, I heard about your new business venture … but yes, very sad occasion. It was a lovely service. Careful smile.
Heather looked like a New York fashion editor. She wore an uncreased white shirt with tailored black pants and flat gold sandals, and she carried a Burberry trench over one arm. Her dark hair was center-parted and tucked behind her ears, her lips were painted a tasteful nude-pink. The most striking thing about her was her youth, which Tully had been warned about, yet still found herself inadequately prepared for. Thirty-four. Three years younger than Tully. One year younger than Rachel. Twenty-nine years younger than Dad. The funny thing was, Mum was six years older than Dad. “I like older women,” he’d said for most of Tully’s life.
“Nice to meet you, Heather,” Tully said, offering her a small, strange wave. There was always something a bit awkward about the lack of a handshake. Australia had fared exceptionally well during the COVID-19 pandemic—and since the strict lockdown had been lifted, life had continued more or less as normal, apart from a little more handwashing and people standing slightly farther apart than usual. Still, some people were nervous about the handshake, and Heather, with her perfectly white shirt, seemed like the classic germophobe who would wave away a handshake and then spray Glen 20 disinfectant on her palm “just to be sure.” Like Tully did.
“It’s lovely to meet you too, Natalie.”
“Tully,” she corrected. “Only my parents call me Natalie.”
It sounded like a barb, Tully thought. Maybe it was.
“My apologies,” Heather said sincerely. “Tully.”
Tully had to hand it to her—she was bloody faultless. The question was, what was she doing with Dad?
Tully tried to see her father through Heather’s eyes. He had sandy-gray hair—a full head of it, not bad for his age. He was tall and quite athletic. Actually, now she thought of it, he had stepped up the exercise recently. You heard about this kind of thing all the time: middle-aged men taking up marathon running to try to catch the eye of a younger woman. Often they ended up with a six-pack or some biceps before invariably having a heart attack and leaving their formerly penniless younger wives with a sizable inheritance and the freedom to marry a man their own age. Maybe that explained Heather’s interest in Dad?
As for Dad’s intentions with Heather, that remained unclear. Tully knew that some men liked to have young girlfriends—age-defying, midlife-crisis sort of men with something to prove—but Dad didn’t have anything to prove. He was a heart surgeon at the top of his field. A scratch golfer. Chairman of the board of Australia Gives Life, a charity that flew patients to Australia from developing countries to have lifesaving surgery. More importantly, he was a self-confessed dork. A man who was perfectly comfortable running outside in his dressing gown with one last bag of rubbish as the garbage truck approached. A man who prided himself on being able to estimate the exact amount of milk to froth for Mum’s cappuccino in the morning. A man who resisted mounting pressure to buy an iPad because he didn’t understand what was wrong with a good old-fashioned desktop computer. He was … Dad.
“What a view!” Dad said, holding his arms out wide to take in Half Moon Bay. It was a beautiful day and the bifold windows were open, letting in a light breeze and offering sweeping views of the sea. There were only four window tables available, and as they were not able to be booked, Tully had arrived an hour and fifteen minutes early to secure one … all to impress a woman she already hated. Tully recognized the absurdity of this, but she also understood this was how it had to be. The Astons weren’t the type of family to make a scene. They never spoke ill of each other outside the family circle. They never spoke ill of each other inside the family circle. The Astons did things nicely. Civilly. And a little bit absurdly.
“You did good, sweetie,” Dad said, winking at Tully.
Tully knew she’d done good. She might not be running a successful business like Rachel, but she knew how to find a nice restaurant. Lunch would cost a small fortune, but one of the upsides of going out with her father was that he always paid. If Sonny was present, he and Dad would have a polite scuffle over the bill, but Dad always won. Tully wondered if, given what Sonny was calling their “new financial situation,” those polite scuffles would soon be a thing of the past.
“Shall we sit?” Heather suggested.
Heather’s voice, Tully noticed, was imbued with a solid upper-middle-class accent, prompting Tully to reassess her hypothesis that Heather’s interest in Dad was an attempt to improve her status in life. She could be a gold digger, but judging by Heather’s Burberry trench, the woman wasn’t hard up. Which left Tully a bit stumped. If not for money or social standing, why would an attractive woman of thirty-four be interested in Dad?
They all sat. Already Tully was exhausted. She’d spent the evening before on two-year-old Miles’s bedroom floor, holding his hand as he got used to his new big-boy bed. She managed to sneak into her own bed around two A.M., before awaking again at daybreak for Pilates followed by packing lunch boxes, cleaning for the cleaner, and heading to preschool drop-off, where she was bailed up by Miles’s teacher for half an hour to discuss his “issues.” This, plus the extra half hour she spent crying in the car afterward, made her late for her blowout appointment—an unnecessary expense that, in light of their new financial situation, would almost certainly cause problems when Sonny saw it on the credit card statement. But it was going to be a tough day for Tully. A day that required her game face and a blow-out.
Copyright © 2022 by Sally Hepworth