When a bad-boy horse trainer settles down with a girl who loves a roller coaster ride, it’s no wonder that their daughter has trouble sleeping. Ten-year-old Mattie is the child raising her parents in Karen Shepard’s The Bad Boy’s Wife, a wonderfully perceptive treatment of a marriage based on passion—and not much else.
The novel begins with Mattie’s mother, Hannah, lurking in the shadows of her ex-husband’s new life. After a fifteen-year marriage, bad boy Cole has ditched Hannah, but for her, divorce is just a word. She spends much of her time in the stables within shouting distance of the house Cole shares with his new wife and baby. Hannah exists in a dream state of nostalgia and self-torture. She fantasizes about forgiving Cole “for Mattie’s sake,” and taking him back, “but only if he asks,” while she perversely admires and wishes she were her replacement, the new wife.
Hannah was clearly hoodooed by Cole early in their marriage. Once a horsewoman and the image of independence, she lost interest in her own wildness when she got pregnant, settling into the comfortable role of a planet orbiting Cole. She is by no means starry-eyed. She seems riveted by the promise of danger, and Cole is psychologically dangerous. He insists that the women in his life, wives and daughter, exhibit strength and endurance, much the same as well-trained mares. Because he draws the line at weakness, thrill-seeking Hannah pushes that boundary, becoming a study in ineptitude and eccentricity—exactly the type to irritate Cole and, perhaps, to keep his attention. It works—until it doesn’t.
Shepard steers clear of stereotype and caricature, creating in Cole a bad boy who’s not so much bad as self-absorbed, and in Hannah, an innocent with phenomenally lousy judgment.We’re lulled into liking these all too human parents—they seem to be trying. Hannah, for example, is trying hard to help Cole’s baby sleep when, wrapped in drowsy despair over her wrecked marriage, she becomes an unwitting Lady Macbeth, drugging and nearly murdering the infant. For his part, Cole tries to prove his merit as a parent by giving Mattie a rigorous riding lesson with a court appointed psychologist looking on.Taken with the idea of himself as 1) good father; 2) good cowboy; 3) good teacher, he is blind to the reality of his daughter, who is afraid. Afraid of everything: of letting him down, of abandoning one parent for the other, of falling. She does, of course, fall. He (with the best intentions) pushes her to it.
Mattie is a reliable guide into this family’s chaos. Having learned in her short life that “nobody knows who’s going to be fine,” she constantly assesses her parents’ behavior and tries to protect them. Cole falls into cowpoke idioms while trying to impress the psychologist: “…a good mare is rarer than a fan in hell”—silly but endearing when filtered through Mattie, who tells us that when her father is nervous, he talks that talk. Sometimes his silly talk edges on pathos:“A bad mare is worse than the worst kind of woman,” he tells the psychologist. “The only safe place [is] on her back.” He is saved (sort of) by Mattie’s sympathy for him. Karen Shepard knows these characters, the obsessive parents driven by passion and their nervous children. She draws them and their troubles beautifully. This bad boy, his wife, and their worried daughter make a modern family that is believable, moving, and sad.