4 reviews

The First Husband: A Novel
by Laura Dave

Published: 2011-05-12
Hardcover : 256 pages
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Recommended to book clubs by 4 of 4 members
A savvy, page-turning novel about a woman torn between her husband and the man she thought she'd marry.

Annie Adams is days away from her thirty-second birthday and thinks she has finally found some happiness. She visits the world's most interesting places for her syndicated travel ...
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A savvy, page-turning novel about a woman torn between her husband and the man she thought she'd marry.

Annie Adams is days away from her thirty-second birthday and thinks she has finally found some happiness. She visits the world's most interesting places for her syndicated travel column and she's happily cohabiting with her movie director boyfriend Nick in Los Angeles. But when Nick comes home from a meeting with his therapist (aka "futures counselor") and announces that he's taking a break from their relationship so he can pursue a woman from his past, the place Annie had come to call home is shattered. Reeling, Annie stumbles into her neighborhood bar and finds Griffin-a grounded, charming chef who seems to be everything Annie didn't know she was looking for. Within three months, Griffin is Annie's husband and Annie finds herself trying to restart her life in rural Massachusetts.

A wry observer of modern love, Laura Dave "steers clear of easy answers to explore the romantic choices we make" (USA Today). Her third novel is packed with humor, empathy, and psychological insight about the power of love and home.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.


It feels important to start with the truth about how I got here.

When everything gets messy and brutal and complicated, the

truth is the first thing to go, isn't it? People try to shade it or

spin it or fi x it. As though fi xing the facts will make the situation

less messy and brutal and complicated. Not more. But there's

no fi xing this. The truth is that I brought it on myself. All of it.

Everything that was coming next--everything I couldn't have

begun to imagine would constitute the next year of my life. After

all, I was the one who did it that morning, knowing full well

what could happen, what history had taught me would happen,

if I were reckless enough to go through with it. I went down to

the living room, still wearing Nick's oversized pajama top, and

snuggled myself under the blanket, turning on the DVD player.

Like it was that easy. Like Roman Holiday was just any movie.

Like it wasn't a bomb I was about to detonate right into the

middle of my life.

I'm not normally--not, as a rule, at least--a superstitious

person. But there are hard and true facts that can't be ignored.

The first time I saw Roman Holiday, I was seven years old and

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2 Laura Dave

watched it during family movie night with both my parents. The

following day they announced they were getting a divorce. The

next time I was sixteen. My mother proclaimed later that day,

post-viewing, that she was moving us--our ninth move in nine

years--this time away from San Francisco (where we'd lived just

long enough for me to find a real friend, a "boyfriend," and a

potential other friend) to a tiny town in the northeast corner of

North Dakota (population 351, where I'd attend my last year of

high school with three people in my entire graduating class).

Five years later I'd just graduated from college and landed a

job at the New York Sun. I'd be the lowliest reporter imaginable,

but I'd be a reporter. In New York City! While I was packing, I

came across Roman Holiday and thought, I'm a grown-up now,

not subject to childhood superstitions. Why not? Here's why

not: the next morning, I received an e-mail from my once-future

employer. Due to cutbacks, we have frozen all future hires. . . .

et cetera. I had less than forty-eight hours left in my college

apartment, $105,000 in school loans, and the sum total of my

accumulated savings sunk into a security deposit for the only

apartment I could afford--a 300-square-foot studio right by the

West Side Highway. And no job, not anymore.

The fourth time I was twenty-seven. Nick and I had just cel-

ebrated our one-year anniversary and were getting ready to move

across the country together, to Los Angeles. Nick was trying

to break into movies, a feat that demanded the move. Which

was fine with me--exciting, even. I was writing a weekly travel

column for a newspaper in Philadelphia and since I'd been trav-

eling for the paper an average of two hundred days a year any-

way, they were more than willing to let my new home base be

Los Angeles.

And so I turned on Roman Holiday, feeling solid in my job,

solid in my relationship, solid in my decision to go west, feeling

there was little that the movie could mess with--a part of me,

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The First Husband 3

maybe, even wanting to prove to myself there was little it could

mess with.

But halfway through (the bad didn't even wait until the end

that time) the telephone rang. The house we were supposed to

move into in Venice--the house where we'd already shipped 80

percent of our belongings--had burned down. No one seemed

to know the cause. I knew the cause.

And yet there I was, four years later, thirty-two days shy of

my thirty-second birthday, and what was I doing? At some point

don't you get Pavlovian about it? The movie had hurt me enough

times, or, at the very least, I had several of the most uncomfort-

able experiences of my life in bizarrely close proximity to watch-

ing it--how could I not associate it with that pain? Why would I

watch it again? Here's why: I loved the movie. What When Harry

Met Sally was to some of my girlfriends--or Field of Dreams was

to Nick--Roman Holiday was to me.

It was my comfort movie. It was, quite simply, my comfort.

Yes, my mother had admitted that she'd named me in part after

Audrey Hepburn's Princess Ann. How could any young girl watch

that movie without wanting to be Audrey Hepburn? But it was

much more than that. Part of it might be that I was a reporter

myself, a travel writer--my column, "Checking Out," was meant

to provide a guide for how best to explore the most exotic and

interesting places in the world. A complete guide to enjoying

exciting cities/special towns/tiny islands-in-the-middle-of-the-

Indian-Ocean that might be hard to navigate otherwise. Not

surprisingly, I'd devoted my first column to Rome. Truthfully,

it was as much an ode to Roman Holiday--to the experience of

watching Princess Ann and reporter Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck)

explore the Eternal City and escape their real lives. That's what

I loved about my job--being able to explore the world, to con-

stantly escape. But somewhere deep inside, I'd always wondered

if, like Audrey's Princess Ann, I wasn't just hoping that if I fell

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4 Laura Dave

asleep on a park bench in one of the hundreds of cities I visited,

I'd wake up and get to spend a day living the exact life I always

dreamed of.

The other reason I loved the movie had to do with the qual-

ity of the romance between Bradley and Ann--its incandescent

charm, the happiness beneath its every beat. It led me to con-

vince myself, as a logical person, that my tragedies couldn't pos-

sibly have anything to do with a movie that was so romantic, so

full of hope. Or they wouldn't. Not this time.

So there I was, at a not-this-time moment again: thirty-one,

complacent, sleepy. My brilliant and beautiful dog, Amelia

(named after the original fantastic traveler and explorer, Amelia

Earhart; we called her Mila, for short) and I had the morning to

ourselves. Nick was working. He was a movie director, currently

shooting his second movie--a thriller about vampires taking over

Washington, D.C. Since his first film, a road trip movie (not a

vampire anywhere to be seen), had been well received at a film

festival where it was apparently important to be well received,

he was experiencing his first taste of fame. I was so excited for

him--for us, really. I had been there during the salad days,

when we were shooting his short films on the street. Me as both

key grip and leading lady. His sister as producer. Our dog, Mila,

as . . . Dog Mila.

And yet, since his newfound success, Nick had become slightly

exhausting in the way he talked about his work. For starters, he

was calling it "my work." It was a phase, I knew. It was just one

that I was hoping would end soon. Plus, I'd just gotten back from

my own tough month on the road--spending August traveling

through three separate countries (Mexico, the Dominican Repub-

lic, Argentina), working on pieces for "Checking Out." And so I

decided to go for it. To treat myself. Sweet Mila laying on my lap,

I pushed a button, the DVD player powered on, and I hit play.

Then it came across the screen: the crisp white credits, the

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The First Husband 5

orchestra keying up, Rome's most famous sites in the background.

The Vatican. The Wedding Cake. The ancient ruins. Until the

words News Flash come across the screen, and there she was

before us: the stunning Audrey Hepburn sitting in her carriage,

waving at her minions, the saddest princess in the world.

When The End came and the final credit crossed the screen,

I looked around our house, the one I'd been sharing with Nick

since we moved to L.A.--the house we found after the other

house had burned down. No vase or photograph had come tum-

bling to the floor. No spontaneous toaster malfunction. And the

fresh tulips, the ones I'd bought at the farmers market over on

Arizona for $3.99, didn't immediately die. They stayed in their

almost-dead-but-still-standing position.

I rubbed the back of Mila's head. She looked up at me and

lovingly met my eyes.

"I guess we're good," I said.

Then the key turned in the lock.

Nick kicked open the door, balancing his thermos, the Los

Angeles Times, his phone. He looked closer to sixteen than

thirty-six standing there in his backward baseball hat and one

of the button-down shirts he lived in. All of which is to say that

Nick looked like Nick, the exhausted version: a four-day scruff

of beard, dark circling his eyes.

He pointed to the phone so I'd know he was on a call. Then

he made a circle motion with his index finger--that motion you

make when you want the person on the other end of the line to

finish up already. And, whoever the other person was, he must

have taken the hint, because, less then a minute later, Nick

clicked shut his phone and headed toward me, dropping all of

his stuff on the recliner in a messy heap.

"Hey there, stranger . . ." Nick said, leaning down to give me

a kiss hello--his palm cupping the back of my head, holding me


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6 Laura Dave

"Hey back at you," I said, staying close to him for an extra

beat. We were used to having long periods apart, but between

my column and his movie shoot, it had been a particularly brutal

time. His smell, his sweetness, felt more like the exception in

my life than the reality.

As Nick got down on his knees and rubbed Mila's furry

ribs--his usual Hey honey, I'm home greeting to her--he whis-

pered into her ear.

"Hi, baby girl . . ." he said.

Then he took a seat next to me on the couch, stretching his

arms behind his head. This close, Nick looked even more beat:

his eyes red and watery from the long shoot, and from the con-

tact lenses he'd recently begun to wear in place of the reliable

wire-rimmed glasses he'd had as long as I'd known him.

I decided against giving him grief for the lenses, decided, also,

against telling him about the phone call from our travel agent.

We were supposed to go to London in December. I had rented

a tiny house in Battersea that we could actually afford to live in

while Nick worked on a project there. I could barely wait and

already found myself dreaming of having an extended period of

time to visit my favorite parts of one of my favorite cities: going

to the theater and hiding out in ancient flea markets, spending

too much time in bookshops and no time at all walking near the

Tower of London. The agent had called requesting the balance

on the house. I needed to know if shooting was still on schedule

in vampire land, so that I could feel safe giving it to her. But that

was going to have to wait.

"What are you watching?" he asked.

"Was watching, it's over now." I clicked the television off, like

proof. "Just a movie. Roman Holiday . . ."

"We own that movie? I haven't seen it forever," he said. "I've

always thought it was a little overrated."

I'd never told Nick about Roman Holiday, not the full

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The First Husband 7

story--had never told anyone but my best friend, Jordan. I knew

Nick would tell me I was crazy. Though I couldn't hold that

against him. I'd think I was crazy too.

"How did last night turn out?" I asked instead.

He shook his head in a way that said, let's not even go there.

Then he proceeded to go there, telling me about a compli-

cated electrical problem at the bookstore in Pasadena they had

rented to film the movie's climatic scene. It was important that

that went well. It hadn't.

When he was done, he cast his eyes down, almost closing

them. "So," he said. "Annabelle Adams . . ."

I laughed. I couldn't help it. Nick never called me by my full

name. He called me Annie--or Adams if we were arguing about

something. Adams also if he was in the mood to be particu-

larly sweet, loving. A confusing business, really, when I thought

too much about it: Adams coming up only at our best and worst


"Yes, Nicholas Campbell . . ." I said, jokingly.

Then I reached over and touched the side of his face. He leaned

into it, catching my hand there, between his cheek and his shoulder.

"I need to talk to you about something," he said. "I've needed

to talk to you about it, but you've been away and I haven't been

sure exactly how . . ."

"Okay . . ."

While I'd been in Punta Cana the week before, I'd seen a cou-

ples therapist on a local morning show explain how it was aggres-

sive behavior for a woman to look right at her husband or boyfriend

when he was trying to talk about something important--that it

made men think of war instead of love. Weird tip. But there I was,

following the advice the best I could anyway: pulling my knees

under my large top and averting my gaze, just as instructed. At

least I wasn't looking right at him when he continued to speak.

"The thing is," he said, "my therapist says we may need a break."

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8 Laura Dave

"A break from what?" I said.

This was what I said. Like an utter and complete moron. A

break from what--what did I think? But this was how incredibly

far-fetched the idea of us taking a break from each other was to

me, at that moment.

"She says I need to be on my own for a while," he said. "With-

out you."

I turned to look at him. There are words you can never take

back. Had I just heard them? Five years. We had been together

for five years. Weren't there different rules for saying them after

so long? Didn't everyone have to be fully dressed?

"Why?" I asked.

"She says that I love you," he said, "but also that I'm trying to

love you. That I have to stop putting everyone else first."

I watched Mila's face. Am I missing something? I asked her


She looked back at me: I think I want a nap.

Meanwhile, Nick was still talking, but it was like someone

dropped a ball in my throat. And I couldn't swallow it and listen

at the same time. Instead, I looked around our home--the one I

had designed, furnished, did 95 percent of the work to keep up.

I wasn't very good at making a home, maybe. Okay: definitely,

maybe. I wasn't home enough to be good at it (as evidenced by

my suitcase still packed and ready by the front door). But regard-

less, if Nick was naming that as the game, hadn't I been the one

who'd always done most of the first-putting?

"She says I need to figure out what I need for me."

She says. He kept saying that. She says. Three hundred times

now, if I was counting correctly. Probably because he knew that

if he took the she says out, his words sounded harsher. This was

my first clear thought. My second was sadder. What had I done

to make him want to leave?

Which was when he started to get to the truth.

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The First Husband 9

"Also," he said, far more quietly. "There may be other reasons

why I'm confused."

At least he had the courage to say that.

"There may be other reasons?" I said. "Do you want to check

with your therapist first?"

He hit me with a sad look. "That isn't helpful," he said.

Maybe it wasn't helpful, but it was also not entirely uncalled for.

Nick's "therapist" wasn't even a real therapist. He had never seen

a therapist before in his life. But someone from his work had

recommended that Nick meet with this woman, who was closer

to a psychic, or a life counselor. Or, as she called herself on her

silky blue business card, a futures counselor. Meaning after

hearing your stories, she told you what she saw in your future

and then helped you get there, or helped you to avoid it. For, you

know, $650 an hour.

This was when I realized what he was trying very hard not

to tell me.

"Who is she?" I asked, but I already had a guess: Michelle

Bryant, Nick's ex-girlfriend and college sweetheart. They had

gone to Brown together, dated all four years there, and lived

together for the last two of them. Then they had lived together

in a picturesque carriage house in Brooklyn for two years after

graduating. Michelle was a pediatric neurosurgeon at the Uni-

versity of California, up in San Francisco. And, because neuro-

surgery apparently wasn't impressive enough, she'd also become

a special consultant to the FBI, in charge of studying brain pat-

terns in children prone to violence. And did I mention she was

drop-dead gorgeous? How could I blame Nick for still wanting

to date her? I wanted to date her.

"It's Michelle?" I said, less like a question than a statement.

"No! I've told you that you have nothing to worry about in

terms of her."

Nick forgot his sadness for just long enough to look pleased

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10 Laura Dave

about this, like it proved something that he wasn't leaving me

for the person I'd been insecure about--but for someone else


"Does she work on The Unbowed?"

The Unbowed was the title of Nick's movie. He'd taken it

from a William Ernest Henley poem that we loved--one of sev-

eral poems that we'd framed and lined up by the refrigerator in

our kitchen. The lines read, "Under the bludgeoning of chance /

My head is bloody, but unbowed." In more generous moments, I

had loved that he was using it for the title. This wasn't a gener-

ous moment.

"It's nothing like that . . ." he mumbled under his breath.

Then, in case I missed it, he shook his head for emphasis: noth-

ing at all. "She's just a friend . . ." he said.

"Just a friend?"

He nodded. "A friend from home," he said. "I swear to you,

nothing's happened yet."

He looked relieved about this part too. But I couldn't help but

wonder why he thought that the fact he was leaving me for some-

one he hadn't slept with yet was going to make me feel better. I

couldn't help but wonder why he thought I'd hear anything but

the words he offered up accidentally. She's from home. Mean-

ing, home was somewhere else. Meaning, not here. With me.

"I'm so sorry, Annie," he said. "But the truth is . . ."

Then he stopped himself. He stopped himself, like he didn't

know whether to say it. Which was when he did.

"The truth is, you're away so much, Adams. You're always


"You're saying, she's only here because I'm . . . not?" I fin-

ished for him.

"I'm saying, I may be the one who's leaving. But if we're being

honest, you're never here anyway. I'm not sure you even want

to be."

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The First Husband 11

That's when it happened. When my heart broke open, right

in my chest.

Five years. We'd been together five years. We had a life

together. Wasn't I supposed to be allowed to count on it? He had

promised me I could--that I should--in the breath right after

the breath where he explained that he wasn't sure how he felt

about marriage. But we, he and I, were going to be more than

married. Post-married, he'd called it. What's a piece of paper?

Right then, it was something I could have held up like proof that

he couldn't just decide this. Out of nowhere.

Was this the right moment to make my other point, that he

traveled almost as much as I did? It didn't seem like it. It didn't

seem like he would be open to hearing that--to hearing any-

thing from me. He was too busy looking down, picking at his

fingernails. He was picking at the dirt caught there, not in a

way that he was avoiding me, but in a way that he was actually

focused on it. Focused and exhausted.

When he looked back up at me, it was with a look that said,

Are we done? I knew that look, of course. I knew all of his looks.

It had been five years.

I gave him a look back. Not yet, please. I need to understand


Hadn't we been sitting here, right here, yesterday? We had.

I had come home from the airport, exhausted, but stayed up so

I could have a few minutes with Nick before he left for work.

He'd made us peach French toast and I'd helped him rework

the last scene of his movie. The very last shot. He had looked

so happy when he figured it out, so happy with me that I had

helped. He gave a huge smile and then leaned in toward me. He

leaned in toward me, just yesterday, and said, You're priceless . . .

You know that?

It was a moment, less than twenty-four lousy hours before,

which seemed directly antithetical to this moment. I didn't

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12 Laura Dave

know yet that you can always find that perfect moment right

before everything shatters--which was why I said it out loud,

like evidence for my side of things. The side, as I saw it at the

time, of love.

"But yesterday . . ." I said, "you said I was priceless."

He leaned in and touched my face, and I thought he was going

to say, You are, it's me. You are, and I love you, and my friend is

just messing with my head. You are and I just need a break to know

for sure. To remember for sure. That we belong. Only he didn't say

any of that. And, while I do believe, even now, he couldn't hear

himself clearly--couldn't possibly hear just how bad it sounded

coming out--he did say it.

He reached over and touched my face.

"You were," he said.

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... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

1. In the first chapter, Annie explains that she has brought her own problems on herself.
How has she done this? Do you think she’s actually responsible?

2. Annie believes that many people travel not merely to escape but to actually believe that they’re not going home again. How does this insight relate to her life choices?

3. Early on, Jordan advises that Annie be the “opposite of” herself (p.21) to get over the breakup with Nick. In your opinion, how does she do?

4. Griffin insists that he and Annie don’t share too many details about their past relationships. Why does he want to keep their past relationships in the past?

5. Annie’s marriage to Griffin follows a fairly quick courtship. What might have motivated her to marry him so quickly? Do you think Annie would have fewer doubts about the marriage if they had spent more time dating?

6. When Jordan arrives in Williamsburg, she has some harsh words for Annie about her choices. What is her motivation behind this?

7. After Annie’s disastrous visit from Jordan, she ends up drinking bourbon with Jesse. He suggests she would have “gone off the deep end” whether she’d stayed in L.A. or moved to Massachusetts, suggesting that her “going off the deep end” was progress of sorts (p.143). Why is this the case?

8. When Nick reappears in Annie’s life, he seems to have changed. What do you see in their future?

9. Annie’s readymade life in London seems near-to-perfect. What convinces her that she has to give it up?

10. Throughout the book, Annie explains the various elements of her column, such as “Open Your Eyes” and “Take the Wrong Exit.” How does Annie’s journey in this book resemble her columns?

Suggested by Members

How much will you compromise for true love?
When did you figure out what makes you happy as opposed to what makes you happy 'on paper?'
How are travel and falling in love similar?
by jill (see profile) 07/15/11

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Note from author Laura Dave:

For me, The First Husband started with a question I’d been contemplating: How do we avoid living our lives in reaction? How do we operate from a place of agency? As I was thinking about this, I began to imagine a conversation between two women who were discussing how one of them married quickly after a traumatic break-up, perhaps, in part, to convince the world she was okay.

I imagined one friend trying to convince the other to leave her quickie and reactive union by arguing the point: He’s just your first husband. I wanted to take a look at the irony of that ideology—and, in the process, have an opportunity to begin to answer my question about how we become proactive in our own happiness.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
by Kelly J. (see profile) 08/28/23

Cute book and perfect for a light read if you need your happy ending fix. However, some of the twists weren’t that surprising and had pretty expected outcomes.

  "The First Husband"by Kathy P. (see profile) 01/03/12

Our book club had a lively discussion with this book. On the whole we all liked it and found it to be an enjoyable light read.

  "Best book this summer!"by caryn d. (see profile) 07/23/11


I LOVED THE FIRST HUSBAND. It is a moving story about a travel writer who learns to stop looking outside of herself to figure out what she needs most.

It isn't often you find a book that

... (read more)

  "The First Husband"by Rochelle G. (see profile) 07/15/11

It's not what you think but you keep reading until the end.

Rate this book
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