Thursday, January 11, 2018

Gilded Age Gothic: Lauren Willig's The English Wife

Lauren Willig’s The English Wife lends a distinctly American flavor to the Gothic family saga. Rather than a titled English family and their elegant country manor at the center, we have the upper-crust New York elite and their opulent Gilded Age mansions. Rather like the Vanderbilts, the Van Duyvils are of Dutch heritage; after arriving as immigrants centuries earlier, they now sit at the pinnacle of culture, with homes both in Manhattan and upstate along the Hudson.

The novel uses the popular dual-period format to unravel a series of mysteries. On the eve of his Twelfth Night ball in 1899, held on the grounds of his English-style mansion in Cold Spring, young Bayard (Bay) Van Duyvil is found right before he dies, stabbed with a jeweled dagger amid the snow and ice in his lantern-lit gardens.

His distraught sister, Janie, who faces social opprobrium due to her unmarried state, thinks she saw a woman’s figure underneath the ice – and Bay’s British wife, Annabelle, has vanished. What happened?

The papers, sniffing out a scandal, proclaim their theory of a murder-suicide. Rumors had been flying about Annabelle’s affair with her husband's architect. Janie was never close to Annabelle or her brother, but she knows them both better than that. She wants to uncover the truth, and her means to this end is through a newspaper reporter, James Burke. Strangely, in Bay’s last words, he spoke a man’s name: George.

Flashbacks to 1894 reveal the story of Bay’s meeting in London with a down-on-her-luck young actress named Georgie, who has been trying to escape a painful past and see her way out of her current predicament.

Willig knows the conventions of the gothic mystery well, revealing clues bit by bit, and sensing exactly when to upend readers’ expectations for where the plot is leading. She captures the trappings of affluence among New York’s high society members, the gossip that follows their every move (and in which they willingly participate), and the gilded prison in which they live. None of the wealthy characters has full agency, including Janie’s cousin Anne (a terrific secondary character), a sophisticated divorcee who trades barbs with Bay’s mother while chafing at her dependence on the Van Duyvils’ largesse.

The author also adds some deliciously tart observations on the era herself:

They had been returned early, but already people were milling about, making sure of their seats. No one wanted to miss the trial of the century. Never mind that last year there had been another trial of the century and another one the year before that. There were still ten months left to the century and this was the trial of it. For now.
Janie’s romance is predictable in parts, but her feelings about her status as the family wallflower ring true. As its well-crafted mystery unfolds, the story also offers a sharp reminder that nobody truly knows what it’s like inside a marriage besides the couple themselves.

The English Wife is published by St. Martin's this week; I read it from a NetGalley copy.

6 comments:

  1. Great review! I've had my eye on this one for a while and I hope to pick it up soon. I really like that the setting is a bit different, and I'm intrigued by the mystery aspect. Thanks for sharing!

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  2. I was not overwhelmed by The Secret of the Pink Carnation and so have avoided Willig's books since then. This one sounds good though, and written 12 years later will have likely benefited from experience. I'll give it a try!

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    1. The style of her Gothics is pretty different from the Pink Carnation books, so I agree, I think it'd be worth giving her books another try. Let me know how you make out with it!

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  3. I never read her 'Carnation' book, when I read the inside cover it didn't really appeal, but I'm reading this book right now, too soon to say a lot but so far it's keeping me interested.

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    1. Hope it continues to go well!

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