book review: the english wife

The English Wife by Lauren Willig
St. Martin's Press, 384 pp.
Published January 9, 2018

The English Wife

Summary (via Goodreads): From the New York Times bestselling author, Lauren Willig, comes this scandalous New York Gilded Age novel full of family secrets, affairs, and even murder.

Annabelle and Bayard Van Duyvil live a charmed life: he’s the scion of an old Knickerbocker family, she grew up in a Tudor manor in England, they had a whirlwind romance in London, they have three year old twins on whom they dote, and he’s recreated her family home on the banks of the Hudson and renamed it Illyria. Yes, there are rumors that she’s having an affair with the architect, but rumors are rumors and people will gossip. But then Bayard is found dead with a knife in his chest on the night of their Twelfth Night Ball, Annabelle goes missing, presumed drowned, and the papers go mad. Bay’s sister, Janie, forms an unlikely alliance with a reporter to uncover the truth, convinced that Bay would never have killed his wife, that it must be a third party, but the more she learns about her brother and his wife, the more everything she thought she knew about them starts to unravel. Who were her brother and his wife, really? And why did her brother die with the name George on his lips?

My thoughts: Initially, I found the structure of The English Wife off-putting. Two narratives, which begin several years apart and slowly converge, unfold simultaneously: the murder mystery of Bay and (perhaps) his wife Annabelle, taking place in the early months of 1899, investigated by his sister Janie; and, beginning in 1894, the development of Bay and Annabelle's relationship from their first meeting in England. Independently revealing Mr. and Mrs. Van Duyvil's courtship solves one allegedly central mystery—the identity of "George"—in the book's early chapters. Surely, I thought, Ms. Willig would not advertise such a major plot point on the book jacket only to render it moot a dozen pages in?

My concern was quite unnecessary. The question of George's identity serves as mere introduction to an increasingly complex web of lies, half-truths, and self-deceptions that entangles the Van Duyvil family. It all veers towards pulpy excess: broken engagements and infidelity, rumored incest, and the possibility of assumed identity seem a stretch for one family to endure. Well-paced revelations, layered evenly throughout the story, help mitigate the outlandishness. I'm unfamiliar with Ms. Willig's body of work, however reading a few summaries of earlier novels would suggest that she specializes in larger-than-life plots. The English Wife certainly delivers in that vein.

In contrast, her two leading ladies mature with a welcome nuance. Janie and Annabelle develop into mirror images of one another, their journeys separated by years, in the novel's most satisfactory development. To go into greater detail risks spoiling several twists and turns. Suffice to say, both women find a constrained sort of strength as they seek autonomy while still moving in the circles of the Gilded Age American elite. They also embody different sides of feminine strength (without the tired "I'm wearing pants instead of a dress, so I'm a Strong Female Character" trope) that makes them relatable across a wide audience. Only one supporting character—a long-lost cousin—devolves into soap operatics, although thankfully his presence is minimal.

Ms. Willig also captures the time period vividly. Some period phrases or words require context clues or a quick search to translate, but they only help to build an evocative portrait of the Gilded Age. Her descriptive prose will delight any period drama fan, yet it always flows smoothly so as not to impede the story's progression.

The English Wife is a perfect winter equivalent to a beach read— curl up under a blanket with some tea on a chilly day and escape the mundane. Its bounty of twists may strain credulity by the end, but Ms. Willig provides a satisfactory solution to each mystery and lets her readers have a great deal of fun unraveling them all along the way.


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