REVIEW: Lauren Willig’s THE ENGLISH WIFE

English_WifeA groggy, caffeine-heavy morning for me after a night reading into the wee hours, thanks to Lauren Willig’s Gothic romance, historical mystery The English Wife. The novel opens in January 1899 in Cold Spring NY, at “Illyria,” Bay and Annabelle Van Duyvil’s country estate. Bay and Annabelle’s hermetic existence has thus far been the bane of Bay’s appearances-are-all mother, Alva. Formidable, humorless Alva is ever flanked by Janie, her mousy, silent daughter and Anne, the mouthy, flamboyant niece she took in. To Alva’s great society-loving heart, Bay and Annabelle are finally celebrating the opening of their magnificent estate by holding a costume ball for New York’s best, brightest, and finest. Until now, Bay and Annabelle’s life has been a mystery. Rumours of eccentricities and infidelities swirl around them, about them … maybe because they keep to themselves and, at least on the surface, appear to live an idyllic existence with twins Sebastian and Viola. Bay and Annabelle don’t seem to give a fig about what the “best people” think, rendering them endlessly fascinating to the society pages and ensuring Alva Van Duyvil’s frustrated, officious meddling.

The novel is narrated, at least initially, by plain-Jane, under-her-mother’s-thumb Janie. Bay and Annabelle are “seen” from a glamorous distance. In the opening scene, Anne summons Janie from her wallflower stance at the ball to search for Bay and Annabelle. They are to open the dancing. In an atmospheric scene of cold, snow, and dark, Janie and Anne run through the garden calling for Bay and Annabelle. They discover Bay on the ground, in his Hades costume, with a jewelled dagger in his chest. Janie falls to her knees to hear him utter one word, “George,” before he dies. When Janie glances towards the slow-moving Hudson, she sees her sister-in-law’s body float by.

Thus begins Willig’s double narrative: the unfolding of Janie’s search for the truth behind her brother and sister-in-law’s deaths and the flashbacks to Bay and Annabelle’s meeting, wooing, and married life all the way to their final, fatal scene. Willig deftly reveals, like a deadly flower opening its petals, the deceptions, betrayals, and obsessions, but also the love, obligation, and friendship, that bring Bay and Annabelle to this point. At the same time, like a humble and pretty pansy showing its face to the spring, Willig also brings plain-Janie into her own and gifts her a gloriously romantic HEA. While I was mesmerized by Bay and Annabelle’s story, especially when Willig takes us to their meeting and courtship in London and Paris, as well as their married life in the US, I adored seeing Janie find answers, emerge from the shadows of her mother’s tyranny, and match wits with her partner-in-sleuthing-and-swain, the Irish journalist James Burke.

Willig has always been thematically interested in asking questions about how well we can know other people, how identity is formed by secrets, how secrets mark and cripple and render us unknowable to those we love. This is Bay and Annabelle’s tragedy. On the other hand, Janie’s meek, mild, circumspect existence, her devotion to her charity (her sole defiance of her mother) her life “on the fringe,” more observing than observed, her introversion and bookish ways, allow her to accurately read the narratives around her, find answers, understand motive and, ultimately, free herself from the strictures preventing her from her fully realized self to enjoy happiness, connection, and self-actualization. But that’s not where Janie starts. She starts, like the Second Mrs. De Winter, from a place of humility and plainness: “If there was one skill Janie had learned over the years, it was the art of absenting herself” and “She was only bold and brave within the covers of her books.” She does, however, start from a place that says “I care,” that seeks justice and protects the innocent, in the form of her niece and nephew. Janie’s values will lead her to unveil her family’s dark mystery, but Janie begins by posing the question “how well can we know someone?”: ” … what did she know of Annabelle? For all that Annabelle was her brother’s wife, they had never proceeded beyond a polite reserve. It wasn’t that Annabelle was unkind; just distant, like the image of the moon reflected on water.”

Willig’s novel is really the stories of these two women, the spinster and the “English wife”, one who ends in tragedy and loss and the other who ends in life and love. Their journeys say a lot about living one’s life with integrity and there are, thankfully, glimmers of this for Annabelle before the final tragedy. The central conceit of Annabelle and Bay’s life, however, proved to be trite (I also forgive Willig the red herring). What wasn’t trite was how much I cared about the characters and how much I wanted them to find justice on the one hand and love on the other. And what I’ve always loved about Willig is how she actually lays out her whole narrative, open for the reader to figure out, not through foreshadowing and cheap hint-dropping, but via allusion. Because Willig is a reader herself and has obviously loved the books that make up the literary tradition with which she identifies … Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the romance novel, and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.

The English Wife is not derivative. Willig brings her own contemporary stamp, her own ethos, and her elegant, allusive prose. I leave you with one delightful example, from Janie and James’s HEA (cue, maybe, the sleuthing couples of ’30s film?) ” ‘You, Miss Van Duyvil, have the face of a lady and the soul of a bandit,’ said Mr. Burke” and Janie’s aspiration, to live with panache,“She had tried appropriate, and it had given her headaches. Maybe it was time to be gloriously, fearlessly inappropriate. Within reason.” I loved that final proviso. Janie is in the great spinster tradition of meticulous examination, introverted consideration, and cautious adventure-embracing. 😉

I’d love to see more of Janie and James, but I suspect that Willig does her serial writing only for the Pink Carnation (following, lovingly, Willig’s great love for The Scarlet Pimpernel and Scaramouche). Let it be said then, I’m grateful for the sleepless night. In Lauren Willig’s The English Wife, Miss Austen and I found “no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.

Lauren Willig’s The English Wife is published by St. Martin’s Press. It was released on January 9th and may be procured, either in “e” or dead-tree, from your preferred vendors. I received an e-ARC from St. Martin’s Press, via Netgalley.

16 thoughts on “REVIEW: Lauren Willig’s THE ENGLISH WIFE

  1. I cannot wait to read this one! For four MAJOR reasons:
    1. It made you lose sleep. Not that I wish you sleepless nights (Horrors, no!), but it is a high compliment to the book and writer for a reader to eschew sleep in order to finish a book.
    2. Lauren Willig. For all the reasons you so eloquently highlighted. ‘Nuff said.
    3. Bookish introvert main character. Man, do I relate!
    4. Those two snippets you shared -“face of a lady and the soul of a bandit” and “gloriously fearlessly inappropriate. Within reason.” Oh my, but I do love an eloquent turn of phrase!

    Thanks for the wonderful review and book rec! My copy will be here Sunday. 😊 Now you may rest! lol

    Liked by 1 person

    • No rest for the bookish!! I have a crapload of stuff to do for the day-job, but je ne regrette rien!

      I think you’re going to really LOVE this one! Happy reading and I want that copy to arrive tomorrow … happy reading!! Try to start it early …

      Like

  2. I read this right after it came out and loved it. Your review brought it all back–I’ll try to keep my remarks non-spoilery. I loved the resolution to Annabelle’s identity. Her confrontation with the uncle/guardian in the gazebo(?) was so satisfying! It was so enjoyable watching Janie gain her independence and shake off her toxic mama’s domination. Like you, I would gladly read the next chapter in Janie and Mr Burke’s relationship. (But if Willig never writes it, that’s okay too. I believe in their HEA).
    There was just one niggle. I have long known that Mrs Vanderbilt’s first name was Alva, so I was a bit confused by Mrs.Van Duyvil having the same first name.

    Like

    • You have valiantly avoided all spoilers, but I’m less likely to in the comments … warning folks, don’t read on ’cause bets off. YES, that was a great scene. He was a cousin, I believe, not sure, for the entailed property, Giles, Vile Gile I called him. But his role in the final Rebecca-homage was kinda coolly redemptive, don’t you think? I agree, I’d LOVE to see more of Janie and James, but their HEA is totally believable. I love it when he says he’s going to help Janie find a good roominghouse. I love that Janie is free and strong and loved!

      I noticed the Alva confusion and was flummoxed by it too … the book was so good, I *shrugged* it off, but there were a few scenes where I wasn’t sure who was in the room. OTOH, Mrs. Van Duyvil senior would never have been caught dead in a room with Alva Vanderbilt! What a great read and what a pleasure to share it with you!

      Like

  3. This sounds really good, but I think I will put it in my list of books that are waiting for the price to come down – $13.99 for an ebook is outrageous! There are probably only one or two authors I would spend that much on a new book for, and even then I would not be happy about the price. I really don’t know how publishers can justify such a price for an ebook copy, even if it is new. (Sorry, don’t mean to rant. I know I could try the library, but I like to keep copies of my books.)

    Like

    • I understand. I like to keep copies of my books too. Nothing against libraries at all. I agree with you about the cost. I want to get the next C. S. Harris (my favourite series EVER), coming out April 3rd, and yuck, I think it’s $14.99. I’m so mad, but I want to read it so badly too.

      Like

  4. I was so excited to start this book, but now that I am reading it, I’m finding it a chore to do so because I haven’t been able to get really invested in any of the characters (although Georgie comes close). However, your fantastic review has inflamed my curiosity and is making me rethink a lot of the seemingly important and seemingly non-important details. I don’t always like to read reviews of books I haven’t read, in order to prevent another perspective from influencing me, but I’m so glad I’ve read yours before I gave up The English Wife completely. I only wish I could leave work and rush home to finish it now!

    Like

    • Confession time here!!! I actually started The English Wife at the end of December and DNF-ed it. So, I think, sometimes, we rom-readers have a kind of insta-satisfaction from our genre’s narrative ARC and it inoculates us against alternate narratives. And sometimes it’s just our mood. When I gave Willig another try, because I’ve loved The Pink Carnation books, it sucked me in big-time. I’d say its rewards come slower, but they do come deeply, stick with it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m actually thrilled to hear your confession! 🙂 Before I found your review I put up a poll on my Instagram about whether or not to complete this book, because I knew some of my followers had read it or at least started reading it. Then I read your review which, like I mentioned, made me want to continue reading, but when I checked the results of my poll, the few people who responded answered with DNF. So last night I read a couple more chapters, mulled it over, and decided I would just put it back on my shelf and return to it at another time. I’m going to search for other Lauren Willig books to read before starting The English Wife again – hopefully setting myself up for success!

        Like

  5. Pingback: 2018 Reading Challenge | March ⋆ There's Something About KM

Comments are closed.