A SLEEPER SUCCESS DEFINES NOVELIST’S DEBUT AND LEGACY

New York TimesAugust 10, 2013 

“The Silent Wife” by A.S.A. Harrison.

The blockbuster novel of last summer was “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn, a dark, psychological thriller about a broken marriage, told by warring spouses in alternating chapters. This summer, there is “The Silent Wife” by A.S.A. Harrison, a sleeper hit that happens to answer to the same description.

But “The Silent Wife” has a striking story behind its publication that makes it an unlikely best seller: Harrison was a Toronto writer and an unknown who had never published a novel before, and her book was released as a paperback original, not the preferred, more expensive hardcover format chosen when a publisher wants to make a big splash.

And in a real-life tragic twist, Harrison died of cancer in April, only weeks before her book was published. She was 65.

The book, a slim 326-page story about a well-off Chicago couple whose 20-year union crumbles and veers into cheating, duplicity and violence, will makes its debut The New York Times’ combined print and e-book best-seller list this week at No. 11.

Kathryn Court, the publisher of Penguin Books, said editor Tara Singh acquired “The Silent Wife” in the spring of 2012, months before “Gone Girl” hurtled onto hardcover best-seller lists, where it has remained for more than a year.

“We bought the book and loved it,” Court said. “Then the ‘Gone Girl’ thing happened. It was like throwing a can of petrol on the bonfire.”

After many readers sped through “Gone Girl,” with its prickly story of a marriage gone awry, they wanted something else like it. Ian Kern, manager of the Mysterious Bookshop in TriBeCa, said that the similarity of Harrison’s book is “a huge selling point” and that he has prominently displayed “The Silent Wife” on the front table.

Published in late June, “The Silent Wife” picked up momentum when it received crucial attention from a handful of reviewers, including Laura Miller, the influential book critic for Salon, wo called the book “utterly absorbing” in a review in May. Writing in The New Republic, Sarah Weinman noted that “each alternating chapter adds escalating character revelation, fitting since ‘The Silent Wife’ presents a long-term coupling that seems unimpeachable on the outside but is slowly rotting from within.”

Retailers noticed the book a little belatedly: Target has been selling the book for about two weeks, and Wal-Mart recently put in an order.

But Patrick Nolan, editor in chief of Penguin Books, said the book already has gone back to press seven times, printing a total of 144,000 copies.

“It’s a word-of-mouth book,” Nolan said. “This is one of those things that started more slowly but now is growing and growing.”

Sara Nelson, editorial director for books and Kindle at Amazon.com, said few books released as a paperback original sell so strongly, adding that it was selling even more strongly in e-book than in print.

Samantha Haywood, Harrison’s literary agent in Canada, said that Harrison spent much of her career working as an editor and nonfiction writer under the name Susan Harrison. Until “The Silent Wife,” her attempts at fiction had sputtered out. Then came the idea for “The Silent Wife,” with its concept of his-and-hers narratives.

“She was lit on fire with excitement,” Haywood said. “It was quite fully realized as an idea.”

At the time of Harrison’s death, she had read early, sparkling reviews of her novel and had a sense that it could be a success, said her husband, John Massey, a visual artist.

“She was very modest, and I think she knew that she had worked extremely hard on that book,” Massey said. “She had very clear ideas about what was good. And I think she believed she had written a good novel.”

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