What would you do if the one that got away suddenly showed up in an ice cream shop? What if he ordered "two scoops of you" as his opening line? And what if you invited him to a party and he showed up, got drunk, and asked you to be his pretend wife to please his dying mother? What if you already had a "real" husband? These questions and others are raised in Bridget Asher's The Pretend Wife. Gwen Merchant (love that name) is in her late twenties and married to a straitlaced anesthesiologist who, by her own admission, "dispenses love in small doses." She has an English degree but stages homes for a realtor who pretentiously calls herself Eila instead of Sheila (don't love either of those names). Gwen's mother died when she was five, and her father is a reclusive marine biologist most comfortable talking to fish.
Enter Elliot Hull (love that name too). He's an unmarried philosophy professor, and he and Gwen met at a college icebreaker, one of those horrible events where over-cheerful staffers order you to befriend your fellow freshmen by performing ridiculous antics. They dated briefly, and as Gwen's friend Faith puts it, "insanely," just before graduation, and then Gwen dumped him because he said something in a bar that annoyed her.
Of course, it all goes a bit deeper than that.
Despite her reservations, Gwen accepts Elliot's challenge. She becomes his pretend wife and goes to see his dying mother, Vivian, using the assumed name Elizabeth. But despite her advanced cancer, Vivian is sharp, and whispers to Gwen, "I'd know you anywhere."
This is one of those books about the pretenses of life, the hundreds of tiny ones and the few big ones. (Not that that's not obvious given its title :) It's about safety vs. authenticity and what it means to love. Sound cheeseball? It's not. It's honest, making use of an extraordinary plot device to expose the dilemmas of ordinary people.
Even as I write this, I bet the movie's in the works.