Parisienne Maud Ventura started writing her novel My Husband (HarperVia, July) at 25, after she fell madly in love and moved in with her boyfriend. Three years later, she says, “he dumped me and I finished the book.” Published as Mon Mari by the indie press L’Iconoclaste in 2021, the book went on to sell 90,000 copies in France.
In My Husband, Ventura addresses questions precipitated by romantic love: Can it last? Why does it change over time? Can you love too much? She explores emotional dependence, maternal love, and vulnerability in the first-person narrative of an unnamed 40-year-old Frenchwoman. The heroine “has it all”: beauty, affluence, a successful 13-year marriage, and two children—but she obsesses over her husband (“The idea that my husband existed before meeting me is surreal, even revolting”) and is wildly insecure in her marriage.
She always thinks he’s about to abandon her. “Is my husband canceling our lunch?... Did I get dressed and made-up for nothing? Is he telling me he’s not coming home tonight, that he’s not coming home at all, that he’s leaving me?” Ventura writes, channeling the narrator’s thoughts when she hears the “bing” of an incoming text.
Everything the narrator does accommodates his preferences: wearing her hair long, going without her glasses. She makes every effort to stay attractive: “I maintain my sculpted body with yoga and tennis. I learned elegance (which in the end comes down to three things: an overpriced coat, purse, and shoes. Once this holy trinity has been achieved, the rest is easy).”
The narrator, however, has her quirks, like keeping track of her husband’s slights in a journal and meting out punishment: “My husband moves closer to me, but I turn around in time to escape his grasp. That’s the rule. Last night, he went to sleep without wishing me good night, so he doesn’t get any cuddles from me now. It is out of the question for me to give in.”
And when, in a parlor game, he compares her to a clementine, she is furious. “He lives with a winter fruit, a banal and cheap fruit that has none of the indulgence of the orange nor the originality of the grapefruit,” Ventura writes. And so the narrator refuses to drive home, “much too aggrieved by the clementine incident.”
Their relationship is examined over the course of a week, each chapter comprising a day, and while the narrator indulges in some surprising behavior along the way, the epilogue is the ultimate twist. “I wanted my ending to be both a shock and a surprise,” Ventura says. “An ending that changes your entire perception of the book.”
HaperVia editor Gretchen Schmid says she “gasped at the ending.” Reading the book in French on a beach in Marseilles in summer 2021, she turned to her friend and said, “You’ll never guess what just happened!”
Schmid first saw the book as an editor at Penguin in 2021. At that point, she was impressed that it had sold 30,000 copies in France and was also attracted by the premise of a woman with the perfect life who is consumed with love for her husband. “I was drawn to the character,” she says. “All I have to hear is tortured, disturbed, and I’m, ‘Yes! I go for it.’ ” She read 10 pages, though, and put it aside. “I didn’t turn it down but held it—it was so French, so internal.”
Then in France that summer, Schmid kept seeing it in bookstores. Reading it again, she says, she was “totally hooked”: “I read French, but not effortlessly, so it’s always a litmus test for me if I’m reading and enjoying the book even with the extra difficulty. If I do, I know I love it.”
Schmid says she was always changing her mind about the characters: she’s crazy, her poor husband; the husband is a monster. Is he gaslighting her? “I had a strong emotional response to the book, and then I was laughing—a clementine?” she adds.
Schmid bought My Husband for Penguin, but she was so enthusiastic that when she moved to Harper in January 2022, she took it with her. She had the deal but hadn’t yet signed the contract. She bought world English rights for HarperVia.
Sophie Langlais, cofounder of #BAM-Books and More Literary Agency in Paris (the U.S. coagency is 2 Seas in California), says of My Husband that it works across ages: women from their 20s on can relate to the character and the story. “And when I started selling rights to the Netherlands, Korea, Scandinavia, Italy, and Russia,” she says, “I knew it would work outside the borders of France. It’s sold so far in six territories, and the journey of this book is not finished.”
Ventura’s book came after pandemic lockdowns eased, Langlais says. “2020 was a hideous year. I started pitching the book in spring 2021. It’s a woman in her 40s, and it’s not sci-fi! The plot is strongly feminist, yet the irony is that the woman is obsessed. It’s entirely original. One French critic called it ‘Batman meets Ruth Rendall.’ The book has such a strong pace. In the U.S., readers saw it as a thriller, but it’s also deep and psychological.”
Ventura tells me that the book caused a great deal of controversy in France: “It’s feminist; it’s not feminist. Some people hated the character; some thought it was funny; some cried at the end—but everyone was talking. It appealed to both men and women.”
It was only with fiction, Ventura says, that she could explore the subject of loving too much, to talk about what she was feeling in her own relationship. In fact, the original manuscript had a different ending. “I knew the ending wasn’t perfect, but I wasn’t sure what to do. I kept thinking, and then, my boyfriend dumped me and I knew the ending. I couldn’t have written the ending before this happened to me.”
She’s happy that the book is appearing in the U.S. “It’s fascinating to me because love is cultural,” she says. “I’m really curious to see how it will be received.”
Ventura even questions this in the novel: “Do English-speakers love differently than us? Do they make more effort?”she writes.