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Austin author Chandler Baker flips the Stepford Wives script in 'The Husbands'

By Sharyn Vane
Special to the American-Statesman
Austin author Chandler Baker says inspiration for her new book "The Husbands" came from talking to people during her 2019 tour for “Whisper Network,” her adult debut novel that delved into workplace harassment.

Nora Spangler is a litigator on the partner track with a daughter in preschool and another baby on the way. She also has her husband, Hayden, a man she loves and who genuinely wants to be helpful. 

But Hayden’s efforts pale in comparison to the husbands of Dynasty Ranch. The upscale Austin suburb where the Spanglers consider buying a home overflows with husbands who excel domestically. Dynasty Ranch men remember teacher gifts and Marie Kondo the house closets. Their favorite refrain about their high-powered, professional wives: “She works so hard.”

“To me, the husbands are doing things that women do all the time. They really shouldn't be that strange,” Austin author Chandler Baker explained in a phone interview of her newest thriller, “The Husbands” (Flatiron Books, $26.99). She launches the book Aug. 3 virtually at BookPeople.

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“The reader is adding their built-in social narrative,” she said. “A lot of these things could be quite benign.”

“The Husbands” is a novel scaffolded on the well-documented challenges women face when they transition into parenthood. It’s also a mystery – there’s been a fire that claimed one of the husbands, and Nora’s hired as the lawyer for his widow – infused with the quotidian details and emotional labor most mothers juggle in their heads.

Baker’s delicious twist inverts the Stepford Wives trope. Instead of ‘70s-era men squelching their wives’ empowerment, these modern husbands embrace the home front so that women can focus on their professions. As befits the genre, these partnerships progress to something far more diabolical.

“I liked the idea of trying to take the Stepford scheme and actually justify it,” Baker said.

And what exhausted mother of young ones can’t identify with the desire to have a mate who also anticipates and meets their family’s needs?

Chandler Baker is adapting her new book into a screenplay; Kristen Wiig is set to star in the film.

“Their problems are all so utterly mundane,” Nora laments of her marriage in one chapter, as she waits for her daughter to doze off. “Before she got married, she worried whether they could handle things like an affair or cancer. And now she wonders whether her reaction would be any stronger and more furious if her husband were sleeping with another woman than if he asked her again where they kept the extra paper towels.”

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“The Husbands,” which also explores the value and pitfalls of grown-up friendships, is already set for an MGM adaptation starring Kristen Wiig. Baker is writing the screenplay in addition to serving as an executive producer. The format swap is a bit of a challenge, she said, since the film version is more streamlined than the novel: “It’s a game of subtraction.”

Seeds of “The Husbands” began on tour for 2019’s “Whisper Network,” her adult debut novel that delved into workplace harassment. The book was a New York Times bestseller and Reese’s Book Club pick. As Baker talked with women about reforming corporate culture, discussion after discussion also veered into the challenges of balancing home, work and parenting duties.

“My point, and my personal worldview, is that we just want it to be 50-50,” Baker said. “What I was trying to get with the narrative in Dynasty Ranch is that the women were still involved with their kids, and the men weren’t doing things that were so far out there or crazy. It seems crazy to us because it is divorced from our current reality.”

Chandler Baker at BookPeople

Chandler Baker will talk about “The Husbands” in a virtual BookPeople event at 6 p.m. Aug. 3. The event is free, but signed and personalized copies of the book are for sale. Register at bookpeople.com/event.