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'The Three of Us' tracks a married couple and the wife's manipulative best friend

G.P. Putnam's Sons

The Three of Us, a tightly constructed debut novel written during lockdown by British Nigerian Ore Agbaje-Williams, a book editor in the U.K., had me feeling trapped and looking for escape routes.

Billed as a mashup of domestic noir and comedy of manners, Agbaje-Williams' novel closely tracks the insidious dynamic between three wealthy, well-educated young Brits of Nigerian descent — a married couple and the wife's devilishly manipulative best friend — over the course of a single wine-drenched day. The result is decidedly more discomforting than amusing.

Each of the three characters takes a turn sharing their perspective, beginning with the beautiful unnamed wife, who doesn't work or do much but exercise, gossip and get soused with her disruptive best friend from childhood, whom her husband detests. Temi, the only named character, shows up regularly at the couple's posh home, where they're "only the third Black couple to move into the gated community in its entire eight-year existence." She routinely overstays her welcome and baits, insults and enrages the mild-mannered husband, which his wife somehow finds amusing. "I expected to live with one woman when I got married," he says. "Apparently I live with two."

What's with Temi? We have to wait for the third section of the novel to hear her point of view, but there's no big reveal because by then we're pretty much onto her: She can't believe that her friend has betrayed their college understanding — to never marry and to live BMFM: "By Myself, For Myself." But for Temi, their pact meant undying allegiance to her.

Temi doesn't mince words, especially when attacking the husband. She tells her friend that "this man doesn't fit into the plans we made." In fact, all men were never part of her plan. She considers them "instruments, not partners. Their presumed superiority over women throughout history has made them complacent and stopped them from adequately evolving, and so now they are no longer fit for long-term use." In one of the book's funnier lines, she says, "Men are like those pans that say non-stick and then you fry one egg and the whole pan is ruined."

The wife comments: "It's been an ongoing theme throughout my relationship with my husband that Temi believes that I don't love him and that I have a brilliant endgame that I am working toward." Yet she fails to defend her marriage or her husband, preferring to remain a "Switzerland" between the two warring parties.

When the wife tells Temi that she and her husband are trying to conceive a child, Temi is outraged. She amps up her efforts to derail the marriage, resorting to stealth attacks — including undermining the husband's trust of his wife.

We've seen jealous, possessive friends and housewreckers with no boundaries before, though perhaps not quite so thoroughly, unapologetically unlikeable. Of course, fictional characters needn't be likeable or sympathetic to be effective, but they must be interesting. Temi, manipulative and controlling, bears similarities with the intrusive scene-stealers in Zoë Heller's What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal and Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs. But she's more annoying than intriguing.

The vapid, contented wife doesn't help matters. "My husband and I match because he expects nothing from me...He wanted someone calm and beautiful...In my husband I found someone for whom the bare minimum was more than enough, someone who didn't expect anything of me that I wasn't willing to give." Until he pressed for a child.

Does the trio's Nigerian roots change the picture? Not much — though like many children of immigrants, they are under added pressure from their parents to "tick the boxes" — top grades in school, professional success, good marriages and children. Here, the women are clearly acting out against such expectations. As for the husband, he is a dutiful, loving son, pleased with his privileged life. He's blandness personified. Temi, a brilliant student, rebelled early, insisting on being her own person. But she needed an acolyte. She freed her meek friend from parental control and took her under her wing — where she expected her to stay.

How does the characters' wealth affect this chilling exploration of marriage, friendship, loyalty, and doubt? Does it tip it over into fantasy — or lower the stakes? Although the couple's cupboard is woefully bare — and unhealthy Snickers (the candy bars, not the smirks) are strictly rationed — no one is in danger of going hungry in this household. Untouched by real worries, the spoiled threesome are free to toy with each other.

As the tension of this well-crafted but nasty long day's journey into night mounts, its combination of booze, taunts, and the shadow of an unborn child made me think of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, though The Three of Us is far less shocking or powerful. In fact, this novel, structured like a three act play, would probably play better on stage than on the page.

Bottom line: Agbaje-Williams fails to make us care how this power grab plays out.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.