In To Have and To Hoax by Martha Waters, Violet and James have been married for five years. The last four, however, have been far from marital bliss—they have hardly spoken. But when James has an accident on his horse, Violet rushes to make sure he is unharmed, only to find him perfectly fine and rather flippant about it. To get back at her husband, Violet resolves to fake an illness. As the back-and-forth deceptions continue and escalate, both begin to realize that their resentment is only surface-level, and that they may still be in love.
Violet and James are mostly well-written. They are witty and intelligent, and have engaging narrative voices; however, they frustrated me a bit, but more on that later. The other characters such as Emily, Diana, and Sophie were fun and distinct personalities.
The story has a lot of promise, even though it’s a slightly silly, unrealistic idea, because who on earth would think to behave like this is reasonable? But Waters manages, overall, not to take it too far. That said, the longer I read this book, the more it felt like a soap opera. Violet and James are just a tad too dramatic to feel like real people. The fact that for so long, these two did not communicate was infuriating. I understand the plot hinges on lack of communication, but I have learned that that is a plot device I strongly dislike. I just wanted to lock Violet and James in a room with a marriage counselor and not let any of them out until things were resolved.
One other thing that I had a problem with was that, early on, Violet slaps James. She has spent a few fraught hours thinking he might be badly wounded, and then finds him alive and casual about it all. So her relief and frustration leads her to slap him. This is treated like no big deal; she never apologizes and never faces any consequences. Imagine, though, if James had slapped Violet. That would have been treated as a big deal. Therefore, the fact that Violet is allowed to get away with this is a terrible double standard. Not to say that Violet is abusive (this is the only time she hits him, and the scene is clearly intended to be a character moment to show she is “fiesty” or something), but in my opinion, the media should not treat abusive tendencies in women as less serious than in men. So, obviously, I didn’t like this scene at all and it rather turned me off the entire relationship.
All that said, a lot of the banter is entertaining. The side characters reacting to the drama is also great. And often, the revelations the protagonists come to about their relationship with each other and with others in their family are handled fairly well. I also liked the clever narrative touch in terms of shifting points of view. At the beginning of the novel, Violet’s and James’ POVs are separated into their own chapters, but as the story progresses, the scenes from each of their perspectives start to alternate within chapters. It was a nice, subtle way to show how they are growing closer again, more within each other’s orbits than before.
In the end, Martha Waters’ debut novel To Have and To Hoax isn’t too bad, with lots of witty dialogue and silly hijinks. It is just a little too over-the-top for me, some aspects of the core relationship bothered me, and the drama I found ultimately more irritating than fun.
Overall rating: 7/10