Ladies of the House is a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, following a family as they fall from grace after the death of their patriarch. Mother and daughters have to grapple with their new lives, and learn to survive independently, despite a deck stacked against them.
The Richardson women are blindsided by the sudden death of Gregory, senator, father, husband, and adulterer. Cricket, his widow, and their daughters, Daisy and Wallis, are thrust even further into the public eye after his death, when Gregory’s misconduct becomes public, and all of their lives are upended. Financial stress forces them to sell the family home, and the public scrutiny endangers Daisy’s job. Both daughters must deal with being disappointed in love, and try to find their way forward.
Daisy has been in love with the same man for fifteen years, her close friend and confidant Atlas, whom she met as a college student while on the campaign trail with her father. They have remained platonic friends all this time, occasionally separated by an ocean, and Daisy knows he only loves her as a sister. Her resilience is tested when Atlas, an independent journalist, is asked to write a piece about her father. Daisy is the chief of staff for a prominent young senator, and while Atlas can try to protect her, the rest of the press has no such scruples, jeopardizing not only Daisy’s good name, but her livelihood.
Wallis is so young- twenty-five, freshly home from teaching abroad and starting her first job. She also falls in love for the first time, with someone entirely unsuitable and far too charming. Blake, her beau, is on the other side of the political aisle, but Wallis knows he isn’t like the rest of his family. To further complicate matters, Blake’s mother, a senator, openly disdains the Richardsons and disapproves of his relationship with Wallis. Despite the roadblocks in their way, the Richardson women must find peace with the past in order to move forward, together.
The characters in this book really are remarkable, and the author shows a deep understanding both of the original text and of how the story translates to the present. Even characters who barely appear really have a chance to shine, which says a lot about the storytelling. Cricket, in particular, is a real stand-out. In the original novel, the mother really doesn’t get a meaty part, but in this story Cricket and her daughters have a fascinating dynamic, one that makes her nearly as interesting as they are. The book shows us how, while the Richardson women aren’t complicit in Gregory’s crimes, they protected him at the expense of their relationships with each other. Each of them had a unique view into him, and having to reckon with the incompleteness of that picture is daunting. The echo of that trauma really permeates the narrative.
The book also does a good job of conveying the pressure of life in the public eye, and the pressure on people associated with public figures. Even in a comparably free world for women, their futures and their reputations still lean heavily on the actions of the men in their lives, because of public perception. I also really enjoyed the portrayal of powerful people in the book, some were corrupt, others were kind but cynical, as one must be sometimes.
Overall, this is a lovely read, and only a few things jumped out at me as obvious missteps. Firstly, Cricket and Daisy are always going off to meetings with lawyers which never seem to resolve anything. By the end of the story, the women have come to terms with their loss, and also with the loss of their illusions, but the legal matters of Gregory’s death remain. Secondly, there is a certain instability to Daisy’s job situation that messes up the pacing of the book. While needing to earn a living is a compelling problem, especially when one comes from wealth and privilege, due to the scandal and other developments, Daisy is constantly in danger of losing her job, which makes it difficult to maintain tension and is just exhausting. Lastly, though Cricket is a great character, she really doesn’t have a lot to do. I was disappointed that, despite her expanded role in the story, she had very little in the way of her own narrative.
Ladies of the House is a lovely book, and a worthy retooling of the classic Austen story.
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