Have you ever had a shifty significant other? I did, once. I was originally attracted to this guy because of his crazy stories and his air of mystery; too late, I figured out that the crazy stories were made up, and the air of mystery was actually a byproduct of the thick haze of lies that enshrouded him. Over the course of our brief relationship, I went from vague confusion over stories that didnít add up to mild irritation at his coy secrecy to outright fury when I discovered I was being lied to. It wasnít pretty. Thereís something uniquely frightening about finding out that your significant other is lying to you Ė after all, arenít they supposed to be the one person you can trust unconditionally? And that was just some jerk I dated for a couple of months. It must be devastating (and scary) to find out that your spouse has deceived you so completely that you donít even know who youíve married. After all, if you donít know them, then you have no idea what theyíre capable of...although you can probably guess itís not good.
Mrs. Kimble is actually about three Mrs. Kimbles, all married, at various points, to the same sorry hunk of man-flesh. Reverend Ken Kimble leads the choir at a religious college in the 1960s South. All the girls are swooning over him, but Ken plumps for nineteen-year-old Birdie Bell, whoís sent to the college as punishment after an indiscretion with the housekeeperís son. When Ken marries Birdie, heís fired, and they move to Virginia where he becomes a chaplain at another college. Birdie settles down into the deathly dull life of a ministerís wife: no wearing shorts, no opening the living-room curtains, no listening to music while she does chores. And, naturally, no drinking. After eight years of marriage and two children Ė Charlie and Jody Ė Ken decides that, actually, heíll run off with Moira Snell, a nubile young lovely whoís a student of his. Birdieís life is destroyed; she retreats into a hard-drinking haze, leaving Charlie and Jody to fend for themselves as best they can.
Moira and Ken last until she brings him home to Florida to meet the parents, who are, of course, his age. Moiraís parents instantly loathe him; but their friend Joan, whoís down in Florida to settle her fatherís estate, takes a shine to Ken. And vice versa. Soon enough, Moira and Ken start having problems, and Ken and Joan begin spending time together. Joan, a beautiful and determined female reporter for Newsweek in an era when female reporters are scarce, has had plenty of lovers, but never wanted to sacrifice her career or her independence to marry. But Ken is so sweet...and heís Jewish, just like her... how can she resist?
Flash forward to 1979; Ken, alone again, is back in Virginia. By coincidence, he regularly dines in a restaurant where Dinah, who babysat Kenís children when she was a teenager, is a cook. Dinah is shy and insecure because of a large port-wine-stain birthmark on one side of her face. When Ken, whom sheís always secretly had a thing for, accidentally taps her with his car on the street in front of the restaurant, he insists on caring for her during her rehabilitation; itís the least he can do, he says, since he was the one who caused her injury. Dinah has wanted to be a chef for a long time now, and attends cooking school so she can get her culinary degree. Somehow, though, she finds her dreams slipping away from her, as she falls under the spell of Kenís mysterious charisma and dazedly agrees to become the third Mrs. Kimble. She knows heís been married before, but his past is otherwise a blank slate; he keeps nothing from his former life, no souvenirs or items of sentimental value. Much too late, Dinah starts asking questions about her husbandís past, and the more she learns, the more she realizes sheís made a terrible mistake.
Iíve tried not to tell too much here; obviously, this is not a happily-ever-after tale, or there wouldnít be three Mrs. Kimbles in the first place. One question you wonít find an answer to anywhere in the story, though, is why three lively, intelligent women are serially duped by a slimeball like Ken Kimble. Once they realize that Kenís a sleazy, no-good liar, why do they stand by him with stubborn, stupid loyalty? Is it, as a minor female character suggests, that women are willing to sell out for the sake of a nice house, a breadwinner, and some children? Surely not; these are women who had goals, dreams, and careers that didnít necessarily involve a man at all. Yes, I realize that the story takes place primarily in the Ď60s and Ď70s, when divorce was highly stigmatized, but still. For his part, Ken is never a point-of-view character, so we donít get a chance to see inside his head, to understand (if not condone) his heartless, opportunistic choices; he remains an oddly flat stereotype, a stock character of male villainy.
The writing, for what itís worth, is solid and meaty, nicely portraying (though not explaining) the conflicting emotions that plague the three Mrs. Kimbles. The dialogue is convincing and natural, particularly that of Charlie, who learns to be man of the house at a young age, and never sheds his resentment at being forced into the role by his fatherís absence. Although logic dictates that at least two of the three marriages donít last, the storytelling is nuanced and rich enough to keep us in suspense, waiting each time for the other marital shoe to drop. For the most part, the Mrs. Kimbles are likable, believable women; itís a sad truth that smart, attractive women often fall for scumbags who donít deserve them. Unfortunately, weíre never shown the reason why these particular women (all quite different from each other) fall for this particular scumbag; because of this, Mrs. Kimble never quite transcends its promise, falling just short of the gripping, resonant book it should Ė and could Ė have been.