Recipe for a Perfect Wife

Recipe for a Perfect Wife

by Karma Brown


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Recipe for a Perfect Wife has all of the ingredients required to make a page turning story that you will not want to put down. Rife with secrets, intricate storylines, and compelling characters—not to mention a recipe for the perfect meatloaf—Karma Brown’s latest is a tasty read this winter.” — Marisa Gothie, Bookseller, Wilmington, DE

After reluctantly leaving New York City for the suburbs, newlywed Alice struggles with shifting roles at home and achieving domestic bliss in a new fixer-upper. When she discovers a vintage cookbook in her basement, the allure of cooking up Baked Alaska and Chicken à la King soon leads her into the darker story of the woman who previously owned the house, unfolding in notes tucked into the book. As Alice discovers striking parallels between this woman’s life and her own, she is finally forced to focus on the trajectory of her own life, questioning the foundation of her marriage and what it means to be a wife fighting for her place in a patriarchal society.

This mesmerizing dual narrative of a modern-day woman and a quintessential 1950s housewife is at once witty and charming and dark and sinister—much like its focus characters. With great care and gravity, this book offers a satisfying look at the lies we tell to feed the secrets we keep.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781524744939
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/31/2019
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 2,629
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Karma Brown is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author of the novels Come Away With Me, The Choices We Make, In This Moment, and The Life Lucy Knew. In addition to her novels, Brown's writing has appeared in publications such as Self, Redbook, Canadian Living, Today's Parent, and Chatelaine.

Read an Excerpt

4. Nellie

July 19, 1955

Meat Loaf with Oatmeal
1 pound ground steak (round, flank, or hamburg) 1 cup Purity Rolled Oats
1 medium onion 11⁄2 teaspoons salt 1⁄8 teaspoon pepper 1 cup milk or water
1 egg, slightly beaten

Mix all ingredients, place in greased loaf tin, and bake in slow oven (300°F) for 45 minutes. Serve hot or cold. One tin of concentrated tomato soup is a pleasant addition to any meat loaf.

Nellie Murdoch buttoned her dungarees—which she wore only to garden because her husband, Richard, preferred her in skirts—and tapped the Lucky’s white‑and‑red‑foil cigarette package on the table against her hand. Sliding the slender cigarette into her mother‑of‑pearl holder and lighting it, she sat in one of her new chairs—robin’s‑egg blue, like cloudless summer skies—at the kitchen table and smoked, flipping through the latest Ladies’ Home Journal. Richard kept trying to get her to switch to gum (he’d inherited a chewing gum business from his father, the original Richard Murdoch), or at least to a filtered cigarette, sug‑ gesting they were healthier. But Nellie hated all the lip smacking that came with chewing gum and loved her Lucky cigarettes. She liked how smoking changed her voice, made it a little huskier and certainly more interesting when she sang. Nellie had a beau‑ tiful voice, though sadly the only time she used her gift was at church, or in the bath, or to coax out flower petals. Filters promised to remove throat irritation, as her doctor and the magazine advertisements told her, and Nellie wanted no part of that.

Picking a piece of errant tobacco off her tongue, Nellie stopped at the “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” column in the magazine and scanned the three points of view: the husband’s, the wife’s, and the therapist’s. The husband, Gordon, was overwhelmed with his financial responsibilities and irritated that his wife con‑ tinued spending money on things like expensive steak for dinner, clearly not aware of his stress. The wife, Doris, felt ignored by her husband and his silent treatment and would cook him this ex‑ pensive steak to try to make him happy. Nellie shifted in her chair, crossed her legs, and drew deeply on her cigarette, imagining what advice she would offer this couple who had been marinating in marriage for more than a decade. One, she’d tell the wife to quit cooking for a week and see how that helped her husband’s stress. Two, she’d suggest to the husband he might try talking to his wife rather than expect her to read his mind.

She quickly scanned the therapist’s advice, which amounted to: Doris should know her expensive dinners were only making things worse for poor, worried Gordon, and therefore her as well; Gordon should not be expected to have to tell Doris how he’s feeling . . . she should just know. The way any good wife would.

Nellie—who had been Mrs. Richard Murdoch for barely a year—snorted, sympathetic to Doris and Gordon’s plight but certain she would never have to write away for such advice. From the moment Richard, eleven years her senior, plucked her from the crowd at the supper club and declared she would be his wife, Nellie had felt lucky. He might not have been the most attractive compared to her friends’ husbands, nor the most doting, but he certainly had his charm. Richard had swept her off her feet that night—quite literally, as he picked her up in his arms and carried her to his table once he heard it was her twenty‑first birthday, plying her with expensive champagne and adoration until she was tipsy and enchanted. In the two years since, Nellie had discovered that Richard was not a flawless man (was there even such a thing?), but he was an excellent provider and would be an attentive father. What more could a wife expect from her husband?

She stubbed out her cigarette and tapped the holder to release the butt before pouring a glass of lemonade. It was getting on, and she knew she should start dinner soon. Richard had asked for something simple tonight, as he was ill with one of his bad stomach spells. He’d suffered a terrible ulcer a couple of years earlier and it continued to flare up now and again. There’d been a great sale on ground hamburger this week and she’d bought enough for a few meals. Richard kept telling her she didn’t need to scrimp, but she had been raised to spend wisely. To be thrifty wherever possible. Despite Richard’s family’s money—which was now their money, since his mother Grace’s death only four weeks after their wedding—Nellie still liked a deal.

She pulled her mother’s bible—Cookbook for the Modern Housewife—the spine soft thanks to years of use, its pages covered in the spots and stains of meals past, from the shelf. Singing along to Elvis Presley’s latest, “Hound Dog,” Nellie sipped her lemonade, thumbing the pages until she found the one she was looking for, dog‑eared and well used. Meat Loaf with Oatmeal, the note Good for digestion written in her mother’s pristine handwriting beside the ingredients list.

Setting the cookbook aside, she finished her glass of lem‑ onade and decided it was time to get to the garden before the day got away from her entirely. It was scorching outside and a hat would probably be wise, but Nellie liked the sun on her face. The smattering of freckles she’d accumulated already this summer would have horrified her mother‑in‑law, who valued unblemished skin on a woman. But the impossible‑to‑please Grace Murdoch was no longer around to offer her opinions, so Nellie headed outside without a hat.

Nellie loved her garden, and her garden loved her. She was the envy of the neighborhood, her flowers blooming earlier than everyone else’s, staying full and bursting long after others were forced to clip flower heads and admit no matter what they did they would never have flower beds like Nellie Murdoch’s.

Though everyone was dying to know her secret, she claimed there was no secret at all—merely time pruning and weeding, and an understanding of which blooms liked full sun, which thrived in wetter, shady spots. Nothing extraordinary about it, she’d say. But that wasn’t entirely true. Nellie had from an early age mucked about in the garden with her mother, Elsie Swann, who spent more time among her plants than with human companions.

Through the warm months Nellie’s mother was gay, funny, and ever present in her daughter’s life. But once the flowers died with the end of the sunny season, turning to a mass of brown mulch covering the garden soil, Nellie’s mother would retreat inside where no one could reach her. Nellie grew to hate those cold, dark months (she still did), her mother glassy‑eyed at the kitchen table, unaware how much her young daughter was trying to do to keep the household running. To keep her no‑good father from leaving them, the way her grandfather had left her mother and grandmother years ago.

Elsie taught her daughter everything she knew about gardening and cooking during those swatches of light woven be‑ tween her dark moods. For a while things seemed good, Elsie always coming back to herself after the snow melted and the days grew long shadows. Nellie and her mother were an un‑ breakable team, especially after her father left, finding the cheer‑ fulness of a younger, less complicated woman more palatable to his needs.

Sweat trickled between Nellie’s breasts, well encased in her brassiere, and pooled in her belly button and in the creases behind her knees. Perhaps she should have worn shorts, and she considered going upstairs to change out of her dungarees. Never mind, she thought. This heat is good for me. She sang softly to the plants, stopping to caress the tubular magenta petals of the newly sprung bee balm, a favorite of hummingbirds. “Even a plant needs a gentle touch, a gentle song, Nell‑girl,” her mother would say. Nellie wasn’t as green‑fingered as Elsie, but she did learn to love her flowers as much.

Once the garden was weeded and the blooms lullabied, Nellie trimmed a few herb sprigs, macerating a flat parsley leaf with her gloved fingers and holding it to her nose, the smell green and bright and satisfying.

Back in the kitchen Nellie washed and chopped the parsley and added it to the meat mixture, along with a sprinkle of the dried herbs she cultivated in her garden and kept in a cheese shaker in the cupboard. She glanced occasionally at the meat loaf recipe to ensure she hadn’t missed anything. Despite having made this recipe dozens of times, she liked following the steps precisely. Knew it would result in a meat loaf perfectly browned on top yet still juicy inside, the way Richard liked it.

Nellie hoped his stomach had improved as the day wore on; he’d barely been able to get his breakfast down. Perhaps a batch of fennel and peppermint tea with dinner might help—iced, because he didn’t enjoy warm beverages. She hummed to the radio as she trimmed a few mint leaves, hoping Richard wouldn’t be late for dinner again tonight. She was bursting with wonderful news and couldn’t wait to tell him.

Reading Group Guide

1. What similar challenges do Alice and Nellie face in their marriages? What are differences between these two relationships? Do you think these similarities and differences are products of the different personalities at play, or of the different eras that these relationships occur in?

2. Food plays a role in bonding the characters in this book together, and also in creating power dynamics. Do you see food playing a similar role in your own life, ever? Did you relate to the ways Alice and Nellie emotionally connected with the dishes they prepared?

3. Was it a mistake for Alice to agree to leave Manhattan? Does running away from your problems ever work out? What personal experiences have you had trying to start over in a new place?

4. Were you surprised by the quotes from old books and women’s magazines? What did you make of them?

5. Were you surprised by the plot twist in Nellie’s point of view?

6. Do you have a collection of old family recipes like Elise left Nellie? What is your favorite recipe passed down by family?

7. Do you see anything symbolic or metaphorical about Nellie’s tending to the garden? Does she remind you of other women from literature or mythology because of her skill for planting?

8. Do you identify more with Nellie or with Alice? Why?

9. Is there a parallel in Nellie’s life to the situation Alice is forced to endure with James Dorian?

Customer Reviews

Recipe for a Perfect Wife: A Novel 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
myquirkywriting 6 months ago
I loved this book and finished reading it quickly, unable to put it down. Karma Brown is able to weave flawlessly between the two time eras, making every part of this story interesting. I was dying to know what secrets Nellie was holding and how Alice would figure them out. It was part ghost story, part mystery, and all parts wonderful.
Anonymous 16 days ago
Loved this book! Once I started reading this book I couldn't put it down. Storytelling at its finest plus you get to go down memory lane and remember days gone by.
Ms-Hurst 21 days ago
This book was a constant reminder that boomers and millennials are so stuck up their own butts that they don't realize that a whole lot of other people exist in the world. People between quietly accepting the quaint advice on how to be a good wife and those who just assumed they would never be treated any way they didn't like and would never have a life that wasn't magical. Pretending there was nothing between those. No people who fought back so that they could live their entitled little lives expecting it all to be fine. You know, everyone else. The forgotten generation, LOL. Two POVs, two generations apart. Alice, thinking she was so different, but really being "strong" by being the stereotypical wife that even Nellie wasn't. Strength through lying and nagging. It was OK. There was a little more thrown in there. Not enough to really connect with me, though. Enough to bring it back to about a 3.
Mary Bradley 25 days ago
Good book loved the characters
Patricia Biggs 26 days ago
Clever story with twists and turns.
SunnyCarolinaGirl 27 days ago
This is an extremely fast read. Once I started it I loved the dual narrative or Alice in the present and Nellie in the 1950s. When I think about 1950s housewives, I had never really contemplated the challenges that they faced before reading Nellie's story. I liked how Alice learned things from Nellie and from the cookbook and how it changed her in some ways. I did not like how easy it was for Alice to lie to her husband, but understand how it added to the story, and was wondering what he was keeping from her also. I suspected what had happened in one aspect of the story, but not exactly how it was going to turn out and was surprised by it. Overall this was an enjoyable book by a new author to me. I received a complimentary copy of this ebook from the publisher through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.
JOHN ODIN 28 days ago
I found it difficult to read continuously to the end. My interest ebbed and flowed. I guess I was waiting for a bigger bang from the characters' secrets.
Anonymous 3 months ago
Very realistic and well written !! I loved the '50s aesthetic and finished this book in a week !!
Anonymous 4 months ago
This is the first book that I have read by Karma Brown; it was certainly interesting and surprising. The novel tells the stories of two marriages and one house in suburban Westchester, New York. In the present day, Alice has met her husband in a cute way in Central Park and subsequently married. Her life is complicated (no spoilers so I won't say why) which leads to her reluctantly moving to the suburbs with her seemingly perfect husband Nate. In the earlier time line the story of Nellie, who is married to Richard, is told. The expectations for her are clear but how will Nellie deal with them? Each chapter begins with either a recipe from the 50s or a quote from a marriage journal. There are also many references to 1950s Ladies Home Journal issues. These definitely enhanced the story. The book raises questions about the nature of marriage and the roles between women and men. To what extent should a wife strive to be the person her husband wants/ needs? What if the husband is not at all perfect? How far should a woman go to feel free? What do older women have to teach those younger? How important is it to have children? How can one be a friend? How important is it to follow social mores? How much should one lie (if at all) in a marriage? What does it mean to live in the suburbs or the city? At times I did not "like" some of the characters in this book, yet I commend the author for eliciting responses from me. This book is NOT a lighthearted send up of the 50s or of romantic love. It may, though, raise questions for the reader, making it a good book club choice. Many thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for this title in exchange for an honest review.
CherryPie0420 4 months ago
"Even in pain Nellie understood her role - the wife who bowed to her husband, who apologized for things out of her control, who made his life easier even if it made hers harder. The perfect wife." When I first picked up this novel I was expecting a light satire, but boy was I wrong. In Recipe for a Perfect Wife you see two women paralleled, in two different time periods. Nellie is the typical housewife in the 1950's, and Alice is the modern working woman living in 2018. Both women end up living in the same house, only 60 years apart. When Alice finds Nellie's old family recipe book, this seemingly sweet story takes a very sinister turn, and connects both women in a very twisted way. Each chapter starts out with actual quotes from publications from the 1950's that will either make you cringe, or roll your eyes, with their outdated ideologies, but add such 'flavor' to the story. Nellie's chapters also have a recipe from her book, which was also a cute touch, but the cuteness stops there. There is a tremendous amount of sinister subject matter, including adultery, sexual harassment, and even rape, that is incredibly difficult to read, yet so spellbindingly written, it's like a car accident that you can't tear your eyes away from. The incredibly dark subject matter was stifling and oppressive, yet was written so powerfully that I was glued to every word, yet hating what I was reading at the same time. The ending was surprising yet not unexpected, considering the context, and all I could think of when I put this novel down was, "Man, this would make a crazy movie!" Recipe for a Perfect Wife is definitely a darker read than what I'm used to, but WOW is all I can say! *I have voluntarily reviewed a complimentary copy of this book which I received from the publisher through NetGalley. All views and opinions expressed are completely honest, and my own.
IMM011869 5 months ago
Recipe for a Perfect Wife by Karma Brown. Perfect wives, indeed, Also perfect recipe for the stories of Nellie and Alice. Enjoyed the recipes throughout the book the secret family spices one was an eye opener for sure. Will be looking for Ms Brown backlist and future books. Thank you to the publisher, author, and NetGalley for the opportunity to preview the book.
Anonymous 6 months ago
Recipe for a Perfect Wife tells a story in alternating timelines spaced sixty years apart. We have Alice, a former career woman who moves from the city to the suburbs with her husband and the goal to write a novel in 2018, and Nellie, a '50's housewife with a seemingly perfect husband and marriage. Although different, the two women share the same home as well as secrets, some of them sinister. I really enjoyed the read and the insight into the seemingly "perfect" lives of some housewives, along with the mystery of what happened to Nellie - an excellent read!
Chrissy_W 6 months ago
Did I enjoy this book? I loved this book. I read it every free chance I had, and I didn’t want it to end. The parallel stories of Alice and Nellie were well done and seamless. Nellie was a very complex character, and I definitely felt more for her than I did for Alice. Nellie’s circumstances were quite a bit different from Alice’s, especially her lack of choice in a lot of areas of her life. Alice, being a modern-day woman, has so many more choices and a lot of her own choices led to her current circumstances. So, it was easier for me to be more sympathetic to Nellie than to Alice. Either way, each woman was struggling and had to deal with those struggles in the best way she knew how. (I’m not going specifics because I don’t want to spoil the book. These circumstances shape each character’s decisions and lives in the end. Just read the book to find out. Then come back so we can discuss it!) Recipe for a Perfect Wife had quite a few surprises too. I didn’t see the end coming as it did, that’s for sure! And I loved the introductions to each chapter. The advice given was interesting, to say the least. We’ve come a long way. This was a fantastic read! Would I recommend it? Absolutely! You should read this book! It would also make a wonderful book club book.
Anonymous 6 months ago
This is a great novel to lose yourself in. Karma Brown has a writing style that transports you to a different time (1950’s) and immerses you in the story. You are experiencing what it was like to be a woman in that era and what was expected of you as a wife. The book has a second storyline which is involves a current marriage with all the trials and secrets between the husband and wife. The author keeps you involved in both stories dealing with what it means to be a woman in both. The author throws a few twists that keep you reading till the very end. A great read by a very talented writer!
Denice_L 6 months ago
A wonderful concept! An original story line that caught my attention quickly and kept it through to the end. When a modern homemaker finds a cookbook with notes from the original owner and compares their lives. I'm amazed at how easily this story grew as I read. Karma Brown is now on my list of authors to track.
JS-ChinoHillsCA 6 months ago
Delightful style and a page-turner
beachandbookgirl 6 months ago
I loved how Karma Brown kept the two main characters connected through the entire story and how the main character from today was slowly turning into the 1950s wife. It was a great story and I enjoyed every chapter!
Nursebookie 7 months ago
Karma Brown "Recipe for a Perfect Wife" I enjoyed this story told from two points of view of two women living in the same house 60 years apart. Nellie and Alice are amazing characters whose stories intertwined in a very clever way. Alice discovers more about Nellie's life, using her cookbook and finding more about Nellie's life. As you read the story, you will find that you will get attached to the characters as their life parallels in some way. Karma Brown wrote a fun story yet deep, poignant and thought provoking. I guarantee you that you will be talking about this book days after you have read it. I loved how women's roles were compared from the 1950's and to the present. This is such a captivating read that I highly recommend.
Bookish_Anki 7 months ago
I enjoyed reading Recipe for a Perfect Wife and is one of my favorite books of 2019. A story of 2 married women, Alice moves in to a house with her husband where Nellie used to live. One day she finds Nellie’s cookbook which has some notes and she starts reading about her wondering what kind of life she was having. Their story is separated by decades yet it looks so similar on the freedom they have, the choices they make. I just got sucked in to their lives to find more about Nellie and Alice. Karma has beautifully narrated this story & though it might have been difficult for women to have freedom to choose what is right for them or what they want, with Alice's story it also looks like things have not changed so much. There was so many mouth licking recipes included in most of the chapters which I have bookmarked to try later. I love to read a book where women stand up for themselves, has some message, something to learn; when I finished this books, I was happy for both the women, content with their story and a ending they chose. I definitely recommend this to you. I received an arc of this book from Dutton Books but the opinions are my own
MicheleReader 7 months ago
3.5 stars rounded up Recipe for a Perfect Wife gives the reader a lot to think about. This dual narrative takes place both in the present day and in the mid 1950s when the life of a married woman was markedly different. Present day Alice Hale appears to be in the perfect marriage to Nate but she acquiesces to a move to the suburbs after losing her PR job in New York City and plans to write a novel. Nellie Murdoch, the previous owner of Alice’s new home, is a young woman married to Richard, a somewhat older man who is controlling and difficult. I enjoyed the way in which the author weaves these strong women’s stories together as they struggled to find themselves. I felt the greatest compassion for Nellie as I didn’t agree with all of Alice’s decisions. Many thanks to Edelweiss and Penguin/Dutton for an advance copy.
buggysmom 7 months ago
Recipe for a Perfect Wife Karma Brown Dutton, 21 Jan 2020 336 pages Women’s Lit Provided by NetGalley ⭐⭐⭐ I like the concept of the cover with one exception. Can you guess what it is? If you’ve been reading my reviews for any length of time about cover art, I’ll bet you can. Yup! Uncover that poor woman’s face! I know, she’s supposed to be the unknown housewife from the past that’s been writing all these crazy recipes and notes, but this is just a bit weird. Can anyone tell me why women always go along with what the man wants when it comes to buying a house? If he wants to live in the city and she wants the country, they live in a city condo. If she wants to live in the city and work, but he wants to live in the country to golf, he gets the best country club membership around and she has to garden to compete with all the club wives whether she knows how or not. Well, in this book, we have two wives. One is from the 1950s when women put some of the “most interesting” combinations together in a dish and called it a casserole or salad. When women put everything but the kitchen sink in jello and served it up to company with a dab of mayonnaise or whipped topping. This wife also has a very green thumb and grows some very interesting things in her garden. She is never seen without a long-sleeved top on in any weather. The other wife is a modern wife. She wanted to stay in the city and keep her job, but she goofed up and ended up getting fired. But she hasn’t told her husband that. Her husband bought her this wonderful big house in the country with this fabulous garden. It just needs a bit of fixing up. It’s a bit neglected these days. She says it’s more house than they can handle, but he says they’ll work on it. But he goes off to work every day and she’s left at home to try to fix it up a bit here and a bit there. But they really don’t have the money to do much fixing up. She meets the next-door neighbor who tells her a little bit about the former owner and she gets curious. She pokes around the house a bit and finds a cookbook. The cookbook is full of recipes with notes in the margins and added ingredients. She starts making some of these recipes and getting fascinated with the era. She does some 1950s decorating around the house and dresses in the styles of the time. The modern housewife reads the cookbook, listens to the next-door neighbor, and researches the previous housewife. She comes to some conclusions about things. She finds magazines in the cellar with notes and more recipes tucked in them and figures some things out from there. What does she find out about the former housewife’s husband and his demise? What does she find out about her new garden and the old cookbook? What does she do about it? Will we find out answers to all of these questions in Recipe for the Perfect Wife? I found parts of the book to drag and just go over some similar ground for too long or to seem to go into scenes that didn’t seem to move the book forward. This happened, particularly in the 50s party parts. Too much detail made things drag. Though for the most part, it was quite good. I’d recommend it for those who like period pieces of the 50s.
lauriesophee 7 months ago
I really loved this book! The dual timelines flowed so easily throughout the chapters from the present day back to the 1950's.. The intersect of Alice and Nellie so many years apart, now brought together; was clever. It made for a wonderful, intriguing novel that was very hard to put down once I started it. The descriptions of the many different recipes, the old home, and the styles of the days gone by, made me remember my own childhood and home. It was truly a blast from the past! This novel has mystery, suspense, historical fiction, family and friendship. You will love Alice and Nellie!
Anonymous 3 months ago
I picked up this book at 10:00 AM and by 4:00 PM, I was finished. I could not put it down! A really great read. Looking forward to other books by Karma Brown.