It doesn’t take long to get hooked by Ashley Winstead’s The Last Housewife. The reader first comes to a quote about women deserving to hold onto their anger. Next comes a content warning, cautioning that scenes of physical and sexual violence, drug use, trauma, and self-harm, among other things, follow. However, Winstead doesn’t need this foreboding prelude to draw you into the story. It only takes two chapters to convince you that she’s a high-caliber noir author.
The novel follows Shay, a married magazine columnist who quits her job to focus on her novel. She listens to a true-crime podcast hosted by Jamie, an old high school friend, and this is how she learns that one of her college roommates, Laurel, died. The host theorizes that the suicide may have been staged to conceal a murder, and Shay immediately flies from her safe Dallas home to New York to solve the mystery.
Shay reunites with Jamie and together they pursue their suspicions. As Shay gets closer to finding the truth, we learn about Shay’s dark past. While they were in college, Shay, Laurel, and their two other roommates were manipulated by a man named Don, who created a cult of physical, emotional, and mental domination. Don demanded they behave according to traditional gender roles, and when they disobeyed, his punishment escalated from depriving them of his attention to more physical methods. Shay and Laurel managed to escape, but one of the others died under circumstances similar to Laurel’s. Shay recalls the effects of Don’s power over her and realizes that out of a desire to please him, she willingly participated in the events leading to these deaths. In her search for Laurel’s killer, Shay discovers something larger and more sinister.
At times, the reader wonders about her motivation: is she trying to right an old wrong, or does she hunger to submit to the cult leader again? Even though it was eight years ago, Shay hasn’t shaken Don’s hold on her. As she descends back into those depths, she encounters a different man with eerily familiar habits:
He clutched my necklace tighter, knotting it tight against my throat, and I gasped at the way the pearls bit. “I can tell you’re a proud one,” he whispered …. I jerked, but he held tight.
I dropped my head back, letting it hit the wall, struggling to push away the memory… but it was no use. This was what I’d feared the most…. The addiction, waking.
The balance of power between men and women is an important theme in this story. When she was under Don’s control, Shay learned the extremes of what this meant. Don enforced submission by withholding food, affection, and freedom until his demands were met. Although much more subtle, Shay’s husband, Cal, also exerts a form of dominance. When she quit her job, Cal insisted that his money was “their” money, but he checks her credit card purchases while he’s away on business, and texts her his commentary on her choices. Although Cal refuses to acknowledge it, she senses he is using their finances to keep her under control. Now, back among brutal misogynists, Shay resolves never to let anyone else control her again.
Shay’s first-person account is the focus of the text, but Winstead also artfully delegates the storytelling to the supporting cast in the form of flashbacks and transcripts from Jamie’s interviews. These interludes help illustrate the environment, from the perils the women face to the differing perspectives each has on submission. One of the more memorable personalities is Nicole, a streetwise and willing submissive in the society. When Shay implores her to leave, Nicole refuses, saying, “Look at me, in this Gucci dress. These bruises? They’re Gucci bruises. It’s the VIP option, trust me. All the other options are this, but worse.” These characters help the reader explore and understand the complexities of this misogynistic world.
As mentioned before, the author provides a content warning, and Shay’s journeys, both past and present, are littered with these images. While these subjects may be triggering to some, the characters reveal their pain and fear without overly graphic descriptions. The overall effect is an enhanced tension that illustrates Shay’s predicament and increases the credibility and pace of the story.
The Last Housewife has the hallmarks of a great crime story: a flawed hero seeking redemption plunges into a perilous world, doggedly pursuing lead after lead down a path from which she knows she might not return. The tension heightens every time Shay turns a corner, and the pace is breakneck throughout most of the novel. Winstead masterfully weaved Shay’s arc into the story to create a memorable and satisfying piece of noir fiction.
The Last Housewife
By Ashley Winstead
August 16, 2022