The English Wife
The English Wife is a tale of smoke and mirrors. It is a fable of wealth and power set during the 1890s swan song of the Gilded Age. It’s a mystery, a romance, a coming of age story and easily one of the best books you’ll read this year.
Annabelle and Bayard Van Duyvil have the kind of elegant, enchanting life that most only dream of: he’s the head of an old Knickerbocker family, she’s the daughter of an ancient and distinguished English lineage. Their romance in London, intense, speedy, and illicit, was the stuff of which fairytales are made. Now they reside at Illyria, a fantastic reproduction of Annabelle’s childhood manor home, with their precious and precocious three-year-old twins. But there are nasty undercurrents churning in the waters of that house by the Hudson. Rumors that she is having an affair. Whispers that his relationship with his glamorous cousin Anne is perhaps closer than it should be. The talk only adds to their allure and invitations to their costume ball for Twelfth Night are highly coveted. Then Bayard is found dead and Annabelle can’t be found at all. She is presumed to have drowned, pushed into the river by her angry husband moments before he committed suicide. Now there are more whispers and rumors, nastier stories in the papers and the gossip exchanged over drinks at all the most fashionable places destroys what little reputation the family had left. Bay’s sister, Janie, who found his body and heard her brother’s last words, determines to separate fact from fiction. To that end, she enlists the help of News of the World reporter Burke to uncover the truth; She’s certain a third party must have killed both Bay and Annabelle and she wants him to find the proof. The more she learns, however, the less sure she is about what she believes. Anabelle and Bay were not who they seemed. But drawing strength from the memories she has of them, will she have the courage to become whom she was always meant to be?
AAR staffers Maggie Boyd and Shannon Dyer got together to discuss their opinions about the book.
Maggie: I have to start by saying all the words that spring to mind when I think of this tale: Addictive, mesmerizing, engrossing. The English Wife is all of those things and more. I believe this book will be the standard by which people measure all their other reading experiences in 2018.
What are your thoughts, Shannon?
Shannon: I agree with you. I started reading, and I hated to put the book down. The stuff of daily life suffered greatly until I finished the novel.
Maggie: Yes, it should be a hit with a lot of readers. The heroines are what made it so great for me. Janie and her discovery of a backbone as the story progressed and Annabelle, who had grit to spare from the start; both totally delighted me. Who were your favorite characters in the story?
Shannon: This is definitely a heroine-centric story. I loved Annabelle from the very start, and Janie was quick to grow on me. At first, her passivity bugged me, but her evolution into a strong, self-assured woman made those early frustrations fade away.
Maggie: Yes, Janie is one of those characters that needs an arc in order for her story to have merit and the author gave her a fabulous one.
I really loved the cold, icy setting for this narrative. The chilly, snowy backdrop echoed the knickerbocker world in which the story takes place. Anne, Janie, Annabelle and Viola seem the only spots of color in a gray and white landscape. They burned brighter because they burned alone but it also gave a sense of vulnerability to all their characters. I was always afraid someone would snuff their light.
What did you think of the setting?
Shannon: This is the perfect book for wintertime reading. I felt like I was really in the world Ms. Willig created, and I enjoyed every minute I spent there. I think the story would have had a totally different feel if it had been set in a warmer, brighter time. The wintery weather added an extra layer of tension to the narrative.
Maggie: Yes, for those of us in cold weather climes the book can certainly seem timely. I think, though, that the winter setting also reflects the frozen state of the people in the world the tale inhabits. Only Anne, Viola, Annabelle and eventually Janie move outside the lines prescribed for them. The rest are held stiffly in place by the rules of their society and the only feelings we see them express are cold ones. Even Bay is initially cold with everyone but Anne and Annabelle. He needs someone to bring fire into his life and the women do that.
One of the things that made this book so riveting for me was the mystery. I felt that almost for the totality of the tale I wasn’t sure who or what was behind it. There were so many secrets, some of which I guessed, some of which took me by surprise. I thought the author did a great job of doling out just enough information to keep the reader riveted but never giving so much you felt you had fully solved it all before the end. How about you?
Shannon: At the beginning, I thought I had an idea of where the author was taking things, and, while I was right about a few things, I in no way had everything figured out. I’m also glad the author didn’t choose to have one really big twist at the end of the story that totally changed the way I viewed the book as a whole. Dramatic twists definitely have their place, but I think such a thing would have done this story a great disservice.
Maggie: I was glad about that, too. The romance could have been stronger here but in many ways, I was glad it wasn’t. I loved where the focus of the narrative stayed and given who Janie was at the start of the tale, felt the love story ended exactly where it should. A rushed HEA wouldn’t have been satisfying. How did you feel about the romance?
Shannon: The romance was perhaps the one part of the story I found less than perfect. In some ways, I would have rather Ms. Willig not included the romantic arc at all. It almost felt anticlimactic compared to the rest of what was going on. Everything else was so very satisfying, and I wanted the romance to feel the same way. And, while I agree with you that a rushed HEA would have been a bad thing, I can’t get fully behind the way the author left things.
Maggie: This is definitely a DIK for me; I would give it an A. How about you?
Shannon: It gets a B+ from me. Had things been a bit different in the romance department, I would have gladly given it a DIK rating.