The Next Chapter

How vintage cookbooks inspired Karma Brown to write a novel about marriage

The Toronto novelist talks to Shelagh Rogers about writing the novel Recipe for a Perfect Wife.
Recipe for a Perfect Wife is a novel by Karma Brown. (Jenna Davis, Viking)

A longer version of this interview originally aired on Feb. 29, 2020.

Marriage isn't the institution it was 60 years ago. But as the saying goes, the more things change the more they stay the same — and old patterns can be hard to break. 

That's the sentiment behind Recipe for a Perfect Wife, the latest novel by Toronto author Karma Brown. The story follows Alice Hale, a newlywed who reluctantly leaves behind a career to live with her husband in a big, empty house in the suburbs.

While there, Alice stumbles onto old cookbooks left behind from the previous owner: 1950s housewife Nellie Murdoch. That discovery leads to the uncovering of longstanding secrets, lies and truths about the traditional husband-wife dynamic. 

Brown spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing Recipe for a Perfect Wife.

Wondering about wifedom

"I had this very clear vision of Nellie in the 1950s. I pictured this '50s housewife cooking from one of the cookbooks that I own — as I have a number of retro cookbooks that have been passed down through my family. I had this clear picture of her planning her meatloaf for the day and working in the garden. 

I pictured this '50s housewife cooking from one of the cookbooks that I own.- Karma Brown

"That made me wonder what her life really looked like back then. It seems simplistic on the surface, the role of the housewife — but what does it look like underneath that? As a woman, how does she feel with those sort of constraints on her for what she can do? 

"When the men went to war, the women were taking on these roles that the men had filled prior to that. It's now the '50s, they are suddenly expected to be back in the kitchen and to just have the babies. It would have been a really interesting time as a woman to have to go through that shift.

"I then wondered what it would be like to compare that to the way that we see wives in the present —  are they really that different? It got me thinking about writing this book."

Homebound housewives

"In the present day, Alice is a 29-year-old woman who hasn't got it all figured out. She's flawed, she's married but doesn't know what she wants next. She ends up having to follow her husband to the suburbs to this house that needs so much work. 

The house is a type of prison for Alice. She's stuck in that house under the expectations that her husband has for her.- Karma Brown

"The house was important because I wanted to keep it very retro feeling. As we started to see Nellie come through and Alice began to learn about the history of the house and the woman who lived in the house before her, she was able to place herself there with Nellie more easily.

"The house is a type of prison for Alice. She's stuck in that house, under the expectations that her husband has for her."

Plus ça change

"In Nellie's case, she really wanted to have a child. It was hard for her not to be able to have a baby easily. But as the story goes on she has an opportunity to see her role differently and to make different choices for herself. 

"For Alice, she wasn't as convinced. She wasn't ready to be a mother. And there's pressure coming from her husband who feels this is what she wants: to be a housewife and stay-at-home mom. I think that's not what she wanted. She didn't know exactly what she wanted but she knew she didn't want that. So the discord between them really started to show at that point."

Karma Brown's comments have been edited for length and clarity.