TAKE MY HUSBAND by Ellen Meister (MIRA, 372 pp., $16.99)
"Take My Husband," the eighth novel from Jericho author Ellen Meister, is a comic suburban noir full of locations and references local readers will enjoy, not least of which is the appearance of this very newspaper as a key element in a murder plot.
The story opens in the Trader Joe's on South Oyster Bay Road. As is common nowadays, several older people are toiling away at what should be a young person's job, and among them is weary Laurel Applebaum, 52. She is finally getting off work after a long day on her feet when her phone rings. No doubt it's her codependent, overweight, bored and boring husband, Doug, who's been home sucking down snacks and watching television ever since his toy and novelty store went belly up. He's likely having "one of his inane emergencies, like running out of chocolate-covered almonds."
But the voice on the phone is calling from Plainview Hospital asking Laurel if she is Douglas Applebaum's next of kin. He's been in a car accident.
Assuming the worst, Laurel spends the drive to the hospital imagining what her life will be like with Doug gone. As she considers his huge life insurance policy, as she imagines her beloved son and pregnant daughter-in-law flying in from the West Coast to comfort her, as she realizes she'll finally be able to get a dog, Laurel finds herself feeling that perhaps widowhood won't be so bad. In fact, she's so sold on the idea that by the time she sees that her husband is alive and well with nothing more than a little boo-boo on his forehead, she's downright disappointed. And then the first words out of his mouth are "Did you bring me a snack?"
By the next morning, Laurel's starting to wonder if maybe it wouldn't be best to approach Doug's death more proactively. Interestingly, her closest friend at work, a 75-year-old man named Charlie whom Laurel thinks of as "a cross between Kris Kringle and the philosophical deathbed guy from /Tuesdays With Morrie,' " seems sympathetic to this idea, suggesting maybe Laurel really doesn't need to take such good care of her husband.
When weeks of messing with Doug's medications doesn't seem to be doing the trick, Laurel stumbles on another plan while power-walking with her best friend, Monica. Though Monica's Long Island accent is so strong "it sounded like it was still on the Belt Parkway on its way from Brooklyn," she lives in a fancy condo complex in Woodbury that's filled with divorcees. The two friends are steaming along with Monica's bichon frise at their heels when they run into Roxanne Cardinali. She tells them she just read an article in Newsday reporting the death of anesthesiologist Danny Weinstein, a gorgeous, fit, happily married man who got hantavirus from breathing the fumes from mouse poop while cleaning his basement.
Laurel rushes home to go through the recycling bin and there it is: Hantavirus Kills 38-Year-Old Bridgehampton Man. There's no treatment, no cure — it's too good to be true. She'll need mice, of course, and she'll have to find a way to get Doug off the couch and onto his feet scouring the basement, but hey, where there's a will there's a way.
Many twists and turns follow, perhaps a few more than would be ideal, but Meister's comedic gifts keep the pages turning even when the plot slows down. Doug's sister, Abby, a holier-than-thou buttinsky with a license plate that says NAMST A, is perfectly rendered, and one of the sweeter aspects of the book is the tender relationship between Laurel and her mother, Joan, an agoraphobic who obsessively collects dolls. Both of these women and a raft of other characters, including a loudmouth macaw named Bob, attend Laurel's benighted Thanksgiving gathering, a hilarious high point of the novel.
Bob is a supersmart bird, learning phrases quickly and seeming to actually understand what he is saying. Unfortunately the phrase he latches onto at the holiday meal is Doug's explosive, expletive-laden question asking who Luke is?
That's a good question, Doug. Luke is a regular Trader Joe's customer who's putting a smile on your wife's face every time he comes into the store, turning up the heat on her dastardly plans for you.
And to find out any more than that, you'll have to read the book.