“The Hunting Wives” Explores the Obsession Brought On by Restless, Idle Hands

Someone has been murdered in the small East Texas town of Mapleton in May Cobb’s sensual and compulsively readable thriller The Hunting Wives. But murder isn’t the only mayhem here.

The novel follows Sophie O’Neill, a former magazine editor in Chicago, as she returns with her husband Graham and their toddler son Jack to the town where she graduated from high school. She is searching, she says, for a quieter, “slowed-down” life, where she can be more present for her family. She spends her days jogging, gardening, snapping and uploading photos, writing blogs about homemade yogurt and DIY Easter crafts, and checking and re-checking her own and others’ social media feeds. It turns out her new life is as boring as it is quiet, and she grows increasingly restless —and restlessness, apparently, is fertile ground for obsession.

It’s not long before Sophie becomes enthralled by — and in thrall to — another bored Mapleton housewife, the sexy, uber-wealthy, and enigmatic Margot Banks, whom Sophie stalks in person and in cyberspace. Margot is as sinuous and sultry as the East Texas landscape Cobb describes. Sophie recognizes the abnormality of her obsession with Margot but can’t seem to help herself. At one point, waiting for that elusive text, “like,” or emoji from Margot, she compares herself to the titular character in Tennyson’s “Mariana,” a poem about a woman abandoned by her lover. She finally finagles an invitation into Margot’s exclusive “club,” secretly known as the Hunting Wives.

The Hunting Wives get together regularly to gossip, drink wine (lots and lots of wine), shoot skeet at Margot’s lake house, and hit the bars in Dallas. As the novel progresses, so does the wives’ debauchery, which gets increasingly cruel and shallow, not to mention destructive to both themselves, their friends, and those around them. The women behave badly — then very badly. Sophie continually draws lines in the sand and continually crosses them. As Margot becomes her totem, Sophie breaks her promises to her husband and to her best friend Erin. She hedges and apologizes at first, then, as time passes, she fibs, and finally lies outright. Eventually, she finds herself embroiled in a murder investigation and at risk of losing everything and everyone she loves. I think there is a sort of cultural critique here, something to do with social media and idle hands.

Cobb, a Texas native and the author of the award-winning debut Big Woods, doesn’t spend much time exploring her characters’ motivations. Sophie is somewhat passive, buffeted about by her own lust, making the same mistakes a teenager in the throes of an infatuation might. It’s implied that her behavior is largely the result of her abandonment at a young age by her father and her mother’s own subsequent restlessness. In other words: arrested development. Margot’s acting-out can be chalked up, at least in part, to revenge over her husband’s infidelities, but we learn precious little else about her. Cobb doesn’t concern herself much with the husbands either. They are nebulous bit players on the periphery of this female-centered drama.

I lost my way a bit in the beginning of the novel, which was non-chronological and used time stamps. More than once I had to flip pages back and forth to figure out where I was in time, and whether I was before or after what happened on the preceding pages.

But my time confusion was short-lived and, all in all, it didn’t matter. The plot reigns supreme. There is a pleasant tension in the first half of the novel as we increasingly worry about Sophie’s emotional well-being and feel sorry for her husband and son as she gets pulled into Margot’s vortex, but then we begin to worry about her physical safety, too, as things start to spiral out of control. It turns out that loaded guns, black-out-level drunkenness, drugs, pent-up sexual desire, and teenage hormones are quite the cocktail.

The stakes ratchet up in the second half of the novel, and the story careens at a breakneck speed with unpredictable twists and turns that I did not see coming. The Hunting Wives is reminiscent of the novels of Liane Moriarty and Rachel Hawkins. It was a tasty treat, and I devoured it.

The Hunting Wives
By May Cobb
Berkley Books
Published May 18, 2021
Paperback February 22, 2022