When Bayard van Duyvil is found dead at the ball he is hosting, his wife, Annabelle, goes missing. Soon, everybody believes Annabelle is responsible for her husband’s murder.
Janie, Bayard’s sister, doesn’t believe it for one second and claims she has seen Annabelle dead in the river. To make light on what really happened that night and to try and save her family’s reputation, Janie seeks out the help of a journalist, Mr. Burke.
Together, they will unravel the web of secrets surrounding Bayard and Annabelle’s marriage and piece each fragment together while everything Janie thought she knew starts to crumble into dust.
GENRES: Mystery, Historical Fiction
The premise of this book sounds tremendous. Who doesn’t enjoy a vile murder and a desperate hunt for answers that lead to the unburying of dirty family secrets?
The combination of an enthralling intrigue and a late nineteenth-century setting is also a favorite of mine. Books including both often result in a 5-star rating for me—don’t judge me for my lack of impartiality, I can’t help having a soft spot for Victorian settings!
But with The English Wife, that didn’t happen.
As much as I believe this novel holds potential, I also think it needs some serious polishing. In my opinion, there are two main issues in The English Wife. If it wasn’t for those, I would probably have given this book a much better rating because there was some very good stuff in there. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get past the problematic elements in this book, so let’s talk about those!
I’ve rarely encountered, in my pretty vast reading life, a character as pointless, incoherent and boring as Janie.
That might sound harsh, but I believe it wholeheartedly.
First, you need to know that the book is divided into two timelines. Half of the chapters reveal the details of Bayard and Annabelle’s life from their meeting up to their death and disappearance while the other half follows Janie on her quest for answers. So we get one chapter following Bayard and Annabelle, then one chapter following Janie and so on and so forth. I will talk more about the execution of the plot later but keep in my mind that the focus is not entirely on Janie—thank god.
Like I said earlier in the synopsis, Janie denies the accusations against Annabelle. She says multiple times that she could never imagine her committing such a crime as murder. She also admits—multiple times—that she doesn’t know her brother’s wife that much. With a motive quite ill-defined—to get closure? to save her family’s reputation? to reconcile her faith in Annabelle?—Janie asks a journalist to help her find evidence that both her brother and Annabelle were murdered and identify the killer and their motive.
I guess her character would have been more believable if her motive for setting herself on a hunt for answers was crystal clear and her sentiments toward her brother and his wife were as well. We know that she has mixed feelings toward them, especially her brother. She resents him a little for being their mother’s favorite child—and thus leaving her subject to their mother’s wrath—and for always spending time with their cousin and never showing interest in her. Knowing that Janie was never close to Bayard or his wife, it’s difficult to believe that she went to such lengths as taking the investigation into her own hands.
What we have to consider as well is the time period this story is set in. The chapters following Janie are set in 1899 when women did not have the leisure to roam around the city on a hunt for information, especially the wealthy ones. Seeking out the help of a “base” journalist is utterly disgraceful for a woman of Janie’s status, hence the need to do it in secret. So her quest is not about obsessing over her brother’s murder for an uncertain reason only, it’s also about compromising her reputation and risking exposure. Again, does it really makes sense that Janie would go to such lengths for a brother and a sister-in-law who never really showed her any affection? I’m not sure it does.
Regardless of all that, as much as Janie wants to find answers, she pretty much sets nothing into motion. I can’t name a single clue she has uncovered. It was all Mr. Burke who did the work. So why was she given a lead role in the story? It makes no sense to write so many chapters about a character so blank and unremarkable. The only positive thing that comes to my mind about those chapters is that they give us a true insight into the van Duyvil family, so we get to understand how truly dysfunctional this family is.
So basically, Janie’s character is plain old boring and adds absolutely nothing to the story.
THE EXECUTION OF THE PLOT
As you know it already, The English Wife is divided between Bayard and Annabelle’s past to present story on the one hand and Janie’s present storyline on the other.
I really enjoyed the chapters following Bayard and Annabelle. We get to witness their unusual meeting, uncover their deepest secrets and come to know the details of their lives together and before they met. These chapters were engaging and enlightening. More importantly, they kept me guessing until the end.
The problem here is that Bayard and Annabelle’s chapters come before Janie’s. Every single time Janie and Mr. Burke “uncover” some piece of information, we already know it from the precedent chapter. The result? A very repetitive and dragging plot.
I honestly don’t know how such a repetitive book got published. Or how an editor could not reorganize the structure of a story so poorly executed.
To make the story better, the chapters following Janie could have been cut out completely, in my opinion. At the very least, they could have been moved around so as not to spoil Janie and Mr. Burke’s discoveries. It would have made a lot more sense to have Janie and Mr. Burke find some clue, and then get a deeper insight into the past from Bayard and Annabelle’s point of view.
These two problematic elements kind of ruined it for me. What could have been a very good book fell flat because of boring Janie and the way Lauren Willig spoiled her own story.
However, I think half of the book (the chapters following Bayard and Annabelle) is worth reading. Also, the almost gothic atmosphere combined with the sordidness of the intrigue made this novel enjoyable enough.
If you love atmospheric mysteries with lots of family drama and don’t really mind dragging stories, maybe you should give this book a try. For those who need an action-packed, engaging story, don’t bother. Go read Gone Girl instead.