You might be tempted but The Marriage Pact will make you think again. On returning from their honeymoon, newlyweds Alice and Jake are offered an intriguing wedding gift; an exclusive invitation to join a society which promises its couples will never divorce. All they have to do is follow a set of rules including:
- Always answer when your other half phones
- Exchange thoughtful gifts each month
- Plan a trip together once every few months
- Don’t keep any secrets from each other
Signing “The Pact” seems the start to a perfect marriage and an offer they can’t refuse. That is until one of them breaks the rules and the society will stop at nothing to enforce the contract. As the punishments grow more extreme, Alice and Jake fear for their lives and start to feel like they’ve made a fatal mistake.
A unique and thought-provoking premise for a psychological thriller, Michelle Richmond explains how the idea came to her when she picked up her husband’s book, Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure; “The book outlined every possible federal crime one could commit and the corresponding punishments for each. It occurred to me we have so many rules and guidelines for everything we do in life—driving, home ownership, work permits and building permits, how we behave in public, from the smallest to the most serious crimes. Yet, for one our most important endeavours, there are really no rules.”
The manipulative power of cults is a prevalent theme throughout The Marriage Pact. Michelle describes The Pact itself as “a cult with good food, wine, and wonderful parties—all of which co-exist with a sinister undercurrent. Ultimately though, that is indeed the conflict that drives the book—is The Pact a cult when its goals are noble, when it is truly trying to help Jake and Alice and all of its members succeed in marriage?” Cults have been a longstanding fascination for Michelle; “I’m less interested in their perceived bizarreness, more interested in how they insinuate themselves into the lives of ordinary, intelligent people.”
There are so many rules set by The Pact that it seems inevitable that its members will break them at some point and Michelle admits that “part of the fun of the book was in developing a labyrinthine set of rules that no one could conceivably follow. Totalitarian governments, like cults, keep their people in fear by always shifting the boundaries, upping the stakes. You never know what minor infraction might put you on the wrong side of the law.” Not only did she want to explore “the terror of facing an unreasonable governing power that will always find you at fault, no matter what you do” but also “the tension between what we desire—the perfect marriage, the perfect relationship—and what we can actually achieve. Because no one is perfect, the perfect marriage is always just out of reach.”
Despite being impossible to follow, Michelle told us that she agrees with The Pact’s rules (deadly consequences aside) but she confesses that if she actually had to abide by them, she’d “have been carted off to marriage jail by now!” Indeed she notes how her own marriage influenced the way she approached the story. She and her husband “try to be a source of strength for each other and to treat one another as [their] most important ally” which is why she “chose to have Jake and Alice be truly in love, truly committed to one another. Jake is Alice’s biggest fan. Instead of fighting each other, together they confront a powerful, brutal outside force: The Pact. It’s a book about a couple in love against a common enemy, rather than a book about a couple who face one another as enemies.”
Ironically Jake is a marriage counsellor and Alice is a lawyer, jobs which Michelle assigned to them because she “wanted to flip the usual domestic thriller upside down. Suspense novels about marriage often involve a workaholic husband and a wife who pines for him, wondering if he’s lying to her, or when he’s coming home. In their case, Alice is the one who is very focused on her career, she’s the one who works long hours and comes home late. Jake finds himself wondering: how devoted is my wife to this marriage?”
Writing Jake and Alice as newlyweds allowed Michelle to look at the insecurities we all have, to some extent, about what makes a successful marriage. She explains how “we all have fears and insecurities when we go into something new, whether it be a school program, a career, or in this case, marriage. If it’s something that is really important to us, we often find we are willing to do almost anything to succeed. Jake and Alice’s impulsive decision to join The Pact is driven by a combination of insecurity and desire. Neither one of them knows if they’re really up for the challenge of marriage; both of them desperately want to be. Here is an organization right in front of them, offering to provide guidance in unchartered territory. It promises it will help them achieve what they both want: a happy, successful marriage.”
As newlyweds harbouring these insecurities, Jake and Alice are vulnerable to being manipulated by The Pact which, “in its thirst for control, wants to be the centre of each marriage, the enforcer. It seeks to set up a marriage’s parameters at the outset. The Pact promises that none of its members are divorced, that all of them ‘live contented, productive lives’. It doesn’t want to fix a broken thing; it wants to ensure that it never breaks. If, despite all of the ‘support’ of The Pact community, a marriage begins to falter, The Pact will swoop in and set things right. Or so it claims.”
You might think that you’d never be so naïve as to allow yourself to be seduced by a cult like The Pact but Michelle hopes Alice and Jake’s story “makes people think about their own allegiances. That organizations and groups you might belong to that exhibit cult-like behaviour—groupthink, extreme peer pressure to adhere to a certain set of rules, ostracizing those who fail to toe the party line? How often do we allow pressure from our social, work, political, or family circles to cause harm to our marriage?”
A nail-biting, suspenseful and unsettling read, The Marriage Pact won’t necessarily leave you any wiser when it comes to what makes a successful marriage but it will make you think twice next time you sign a contract. Always read the small print.