Friday, December 29, 2017

Book Review - Lauren Willig's The English Wife

The English Wife by Lauren Willig
Published by: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: January 9th, 2018
Format: Hardcover, 384 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Bayard Van Duyvil has the perfect life. The sole male heir of an old Knickerbocker family he has a beautiful English wife, for whom he's recreated her ancestral home on the banks of the Hudson, and two beautiful children, three-year-old fraternal twins Viola and Sebastian. But there are rumors that everything isn't as perfect as it seems. Why would Bayard and his wife Annabelle hide themselves away in Cold Springs? A beautiful house is no excuse to being a recluse when New York society thirsts for your lifeblood. Soon New York society will get exactly what it craves when during a lavish ball to celebrate Twelfth Night Bayard is found with a knife in his chest and the name Georgie on his lips while his wife has disappeared. Everyone believes that the rumors about Annabelle and the house's architect at true. She has murdered her husband and absconded with her lover! The only one who doesn't believe the salacious lies all the newspapers are printing is Bay's younger sister, Janie. She is expected to keep calm and wait for the scandal to die down. But it pains her to see Annabelle's name dragged through the mud, they didn't know her like she did. A chance encounter with a reporter from The News of the World, a Mr. Burke, leads Janie to form a tenuous alliance with a man who represents the scandal rags that are pulling her world apart. Before too long Janie realizes that perhaps she didn't know Annabelle or even Bay. But with the tenacious and increasingly devoted Mr. Burke helping her she will get to the bottom of her brother's death and perhaps solve the mysteries of his life.

Having first read Lauren back in 2007 a short time after her third Pink Carnation book, The Deception of the Emerald Ring, had hit bookshelves I don't want to claim I'm an expert on her writing, but I have been along for the ride for a decade now. She's even one of the reasons I decided to start my blog! While I have loved reading every single one of her books, finding characters to love and to hate, ones to root for and ones that I long to see fall flat on their faces, the greatest joy was seeing her mature as a writer. When she wrote her first standalone, The Ashford Affair, back in 2013 she tapped into something new. Her writing started to move beyond the dual timeline narrative where despite troubles everyone gets a happily ever after. While I am a fan of this wish fulfillment in writing sometimes I feel that it's unsatisfying. That it doesn't actually reflect the world around us. Sometimes I don't want everyone to get a happy ending. This was very much showcased with That Summer, Lauren's 2014 standalone which might just be my favorite book she's written. Here Lauren had matured to a point that she was willing to kill off characters that we, the readers, had very much fallen in love with. Thankfully after going a little darker Lauren didn't reign it in. She continued this exploration of the underbelly of humanity in The Other Daughter and now in The English Wife. Sometimes good intentions lead to death. Sometimes love can't conquer all. Sometimes there are secrets that will out no matter what. As for me, I loved every second of the seedier side, it's like Gossip Girl 1800s.   

If there is one linking thread through Lauren's work it would be her love of Shakespeare. Of course, seeing as he helped forge the very language we all use he could be considered important to every book ever written, but with Lauren it's special. I dare you to count the number of times her characters have had their mouth's stopped with a kiss as Benedick does to Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Here though we've reached a whole new level wherein Shakespeare seems another character in the story. Annabelle and Bay meet in London where she is working on stage in a musical evisceration of Twelfth Night at the Ali Baba Theater. If the play's the thing, Twelfth Night is the thing in The English Wife. Bay meets his death on Twelfth Night, their palatial recreation of Lacey Hall is renamed Illyria, and Bay and Annabelle's children are named after the hero and heroine of the play. But the references aren't just about infusing The English Wife with a bit of Annabelle's homeland via Shakespeare. The play itself is filled with confusion, merriment, love, gender, orientation, romance, and thankfully not a random lion like in As You Like It. These are themes that are all seen in Annabelle and Bay's story. Lauren has mined Shakespeare to help not only create a mirror to her story but to show the universality of it. I could quote Shakespeare here, but instead I feel like quoting Battlestar Galactica, "All of this has happened before and will happen again." Humanity has a basic universality to it. The building blocks are all the same. Shakespeare knew this and so does Lauren. Sure, everything is a tale as old as time, but it's how you go about telling it that makes it unique.

While Shakespeare is classic, there's another author to whom this moniker belongs that The English Wife shares some DNA with and that's Daphne Du Maurier. I'm going to say this right out, there is no one like Daphne Du Maurier. Therefore when any book that is mildly Gothic and has a house starts throwing around comparisons to this unparalleled author I just want them to shut it. Because whatever they have written will be a disappointment because comparisons are nothing more than a marketing ploy. The book won't deliver and you'll spend all your time wondering why you're just not re-reading Rebecca. When I read The English Wife back in August there were obviously no reviews yet. No one proclaiming that The English Wife is in the least like Du Maurier. Nothing to taint or sully my initial impressions. Therefore I was wonderfully surprised that the denouement of the book set during the inquest and a subsequent blizzard trapping our cast of characters at Illyria felt like a modern interpretation of Du Maurier. I'm not sure if Lauren purposefully set out to do this, because most attempts fail in the execution, and yet, here she is, bucking the odds. What I think helped is that instead of going for the big similarities, she started small, with Giles Lacey, Annabelle's cousin from England, who happens to share a name with Maxim de Winter's brother-in-law. Though THIS Giles would be mortified that I called him small! Instead of reminding me of Rebecca's former in-law, he reminded me of Rebecca's cousin Jack Favell, and in particular George Sanders's portrayal of him in the Hitchcock film. From there it snowballed into other similarities to the book and Hitchcock's adaptation, but always still being Lauren's voice. How Lauren has mastered this, I do not know, but she gets a tip of my hat.

Yet that isn't the only doffing of my hat that I must do in reviewing The English Wife! Now this isn't a brag, or even a faux humble brag, the fact is I'm just really good at figuring out plot lines. Be it a procedural show or a whodunit, I will solve it so fast that you won't know what hit you. A recent example of my weird "gift" was when I was watching Big Little Lies. Now I hadn't read the book but in a seven episode miniseries I was able to put ALL the pieces together and proclaim them as fact before the end credits rolled on the first episode. Six more wasted hours later and I was proven right. Sometimes to try to make things harder on myself I'll tune into a show halfway through and see if I can figure out what's going on without any exposition. Ironically Elementary has proven to be the easiest to crack. Now I think you can see why I like character driven stories that are quirky. Humor goes a long way to fill plot holes. So why am I going on about this bizarre quirk of my analytical brain? Because when someone actually pulls one over on me I feel this need to give them a standing ovation. In The English Wife I was so involved in two of the reveals that it's like Lauren smacked me upside the head with the biggest one and I didn't see it coming. At all. Bravo Lauren! It's like there were these shining motes of dust alighting on Bay and his wife and their marital woes and I was linking a to b to c and going ah yes, I see how it is, and yet I didn't see! It was there, looming right around the corner, and it pounced and got me. If Lauren were a lion I would be a goner.


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